They used their unfair record contracts — the ones that allowed them to own all the music — and went after children , grandparents , single moms , even deceased great grandmothers — alongside many other common people who did nothing more than download some songs and leave them in a shared folder — something that has become the cultural norm to the iPod generation.
Joining together in what has been referred to as an illegal cartel and using the RIAA as their attack dogs, the record labels have spent billions of dollars attempting to scare people away from downloading music. The pirating community continues to out-smart and out-innovate the dated methods of the record companies, and CD sales continue to plummet while exchange of digital music on the internet continues to skyrocket.
Because freely-available music in large quantities is the new cultural norm, and the industry has given consumers no fair alternative. Their entry into the digital marketplace was too little too late — a precedent of free, high-quality, DRM-free music had already been set. There seem to be a lot of reasons why the record companies blew it.
They know how to do one thing, which is sell records in a traditional retail environment. From personal experience I can tell you that the big labels are beyond clueless in the digital world — their ideas are out-dated, their methods make no sense, and every decision is hampered by miles and miles of legal tape, copyright restrictions, and corporate interests.
Trying to innovate with a major label is like trying to teach your Grandmother how to play Halo 3: frustrating and ultimately futile.
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So why insult the consumer by making them pay the same price for copy-protected MP3s? It just frustrates people and drives them to piracy! Legal tape and lots of corporate bullshit. Newspapers are a good example: It used to be that people read newspapers to get the news. That was the distribution method, and newspaper companies controlled it.
Until the internet came along, and a new generation of innovative people created websites, and suddenly anyone could distribute information, and they could distribute it faster, better, more efficiently, and for free. Their only choice was to innovate and find ways to compete in a new marketplace. And you know what? Now I can get live, up-to-the-minute news for free, on thousands of different sources across the internet — and The New York Times still exists. Free market capitalism at its finest. In all cases technology demands that change will.
Distribution and ownership are what they control, and those are the two things piracy threatens. The few major labels left are parts of giant media conglomerations — owned by huge parent companies for whom artists and albums are just numbers on a piece of paper. The only thing that matters to these corporations is profit — period. And many of these corporations also own the manufacturing plants that create the CDs, so they make money on all sides — and lose money even from legal MP3s. At the top of all this is the rigged, outdated, and unfair structure of current intellectual property laws, all of them in need of massive reform in the wake of the digital era.
These laws allow the labels to maintain their stranglehold on music copyrights, and they allow the RIAA to sue the pants off of any file-sharing grandmother they please. Since the labels are owned by giant corporations with a great deal of money, power, and political influence, the RIAA is able to lobby politicians and government agencies to manipulate copyright laws for their benefit. The result is absurdly disproportionate fines, and laws that in some cases make file sharing a heftier charge than armed robbery. This is yet another case of private, corporate interests using political influence to turn laws in the opposite direction of the changing values of the people.
Their latest victim is Oink, a popular torrent site specializing in music. Members had access to an unprecedented community-driven database of music. Every album you could ever imagine was just one click away. They encouraged logs to verify that the music had been ripped from the CD without any errors. Transcodes — files encoded from other encoded files, resulting in lower quality — were strictly forbidden.
You were always guaranteed higher quality music than iTunes or any other legal MP3 store. A mb album would download in mere seconds on even an average broadband connection. Oink was known for getting pre-release albums before anyone else on the internet, often months before they hit retail — but they also had an extensive catalogue of music dating back decades, fueled by music lovers who took pride in uploading rare gems from their collection that other users were seeking out.
In this sense, Oink was not only an absolute paradise for music fans, but it was unquestionably the most complete and most efficient music distribution model the world has ever known. I say that safely without exaggeration. If the music industry had found a way to capitalize on the power, devotion, and innovation of its own fans the way Oink did, it would be thriving right now instead of withering. He would have revolutionized music distribution. I would have gladly paid a large monthly fee for a legal service as good as Oink — but none existed, because the music industry could never set aside their own greed and corporate bullshit to make it happen.
But you know where music leaks from? From the fucking source , of course — the labels! If the album manages to not leak directly from the label, it is guaranteed to leak once it heads off to manufacturing. Someone at the manufacturing plant is always happy to sneak off with a copy, and before long, it turns up online. Additionally, selling an album online before it hits stores makes retail outlets who are also suffering in all this angry, and retail outlets have far more power than they should. Who cares if Wal-Mart gets mad, you ask? Well, record companies do, because Wal-Mart is, both mysteriously and tragically, the largest music retailer in the world.
Which is why Oink was so great — take away all the rules and legal ties, all the ownership and profit margins, and naturally, the result is something purely for, by, and in service of the music fan. Through sites like Oink, the amount and variety of music I listen to has skyrocketed, opening me up to hundreds of artists I never would have experienced otherwise.
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And now that I have heard of them, I go to their concerts, and I talk them up to my friends, and give my friends the music to listen to for themselves, so they can go to the concerts, and tell their friends, and so on. Oink was a network of music lovers sharing and discovering music. And yes, it was all technically illegal, and destined to get shut down, I suppose. Instead, they make it sound like they busted a Columbian drug cartel or something. They describe it as a highly-organized piracy ring.
Like Oink users were distributing kiddie porn or some shit. No one made any money on that site — there were no ads, no registration fees. The anti-piracy groups have tried to spin the notion that you had to pay a fee to join Oink, which is NOT true — donations were voluntary, and went to support the hosting and maintenance of the site.
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If the donations spilled into profit for the guy who ran the site, well he damn well deserved it — he created something truly remarkable. Surely, somewhere deep inside, you had to know this day was coming, right? A lot of people point to the Radiohead model as the future, but Radiohead is only dipping its toe into the future to test the waters.
Maybe music is free, and musicians make their money from touring and merchandise, and if they need a label, the label takes a percentage of their tour and merch profits. Maybe all-digital record companies give bands all the tools they need to sell their music directly to their fans, taking a small percentage for their services. In any case, the artists own their own music. I knew too much about the intricacies and economics of it, of the rock-and-a-hard-place situation many artists were in with their labels.
I thought there were plenty of new ways to sell music that would be fair to all parties involved.
So maybe music has to be free. Maybe taking the money out of music is the only way to get money back into it. Maybe smart, talented musicians will find ways to make a good living with or without CD sales. Maybe in the hands of consumers, the music marketplace will expand in new and lucrative ways no one can even dream of yet. Technological innovation destroys old industries, but it creates new ones.
So what can you and I do to help usher in the brave new world? The beauty of Oink was how fans willingly and hyper-efficiently took on distribution roles that traditionally have cost labels millions of dollars. Stop buying music from major labels. The only way to force change is to hit the labels where it hurts — their profits. In this case, the feeding tube is your money. Send letters to those labels, and to the RIAA, explaining very calmly and professionally that you will no longer be supporting their business, because of their bullish scare tactics towards music fans, and their inability to present a forward-thinking digital distribution solution.
Support artists directly. If a band you like is stuck on a major label, there are tons of ways you can support them without actually buying their CD. T-shirts, posters, hats, keychains, stickers, etc. If you like bands who are releasing music on open, non-RIAA indie labels, buy their albums!
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If you like bands who are completely independent and are releasing music on their own, support them as much as possible! Pay for their music, buy their merchandise, tell all your friends about them and help promote them online — prove that a network of passionate fans is the best promotion a band can ask for. Get the message out. Get this message out to as many people as you can — spread the word on your blog or your MySpace, and more importantly, tell your friends at work, or your family members, people who might not be as tuned into the internet as you are.
Teach them how to use torrents, show them where to go to get music for free. Get political.
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