Of sparking iPods and brain-dead record label moments

Blender.com has three tech gaffes on its list of 20 not-so-bright achievements in record industry lore. And an iPod seems to have thrown sparks in Japan. Should we worry?

Jim Kerstetter Staff writer, CNET News
Jim Kerstetter has been writing about the high-tech industry since the 1990s. He has been a senior editor at PC Week and a Silicon Valley correspondent at BusinessWeek. He is now senior executive editor at CNET News. He moved back to Boston because he missed the Red Sox. E-mail Jim.
Jim Kerstetter
3 min read

On a day when we learn an iPod apparently threw off sparks in Japan, generating nervous memories of exploding Dell laptops, let's take time to report the obvious: The people who run the recording industry are very often not very bright.

Blender.com has published an entertaining list of the record industry's 20 biggest, dumbest, and stunningly dense moments. Topping that list, not surprisingly, is the industry's jihad against Napster. To refresh your memories: Shawn Fanning's dandy innovation allowed people to share millions of songs over the Internet. But there was a problem: They weren't paying for it, and the record industry sued the pants off Napster and eventually, many would argue, killed it in its original form.

These guys or the Tremeloes? You decide. Apple Corps.

Two other tech-related fiascos, the ham-handed piracy suit brought against single mom Jammie Thomas (No. 5 on Blender's list) and Sony BMG's copy-protection rootkit scandal (logging in at No. 9), also made the list. It's fair to say Blender believes the industry has had a tin ear when it comes to new technology. These are people, after all, who thought 8-tracks were a great idea.

But before we roundly mock the recording industry, about those iPods: A Reuters report out of Japan said one of Apple's iPod Nanos emitted sparks while being recharged. Now as a frequent carrier of an iPod Nano, this certainly got my attention. Reuters says Apple is looking into what happened, and there's no indication so far that this is any sort of widespread problem. But it's Apple, so people will get worked up about this no matter how isolated it may turn out to be. My colleague Tom Krazit is looking into it, and will let you know if there's more to this on his One More Thing blog. Reuben Lee of CNET Asia has also posted a short take on it on Crave.

Now about those brain-dead moments: That the Napster fracas tops the Blender list says everything about the state of the recording industry. This, according to Blender, was an even bigger gaffe than a Decca Record A&R exec's failure to sign the Beatles in the early 1960s. Instead, he signed a slightly lesser known act, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes.

Who can forget Lars Ulrich, the drummer for the heavy metal band Metallica, waving a list of Napster users outside Napster's Silicon Valley offices? As anyone who has seen the hilarious Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster can attest, Lars and his hard-charging gang are savvy enough businessmen and good musicians if you're into that sort of thing; they're also a collection of petulant, absurdly wealthy, man-children. They are Spinal Tap in real life--bickering, leaning on a corporate psychologist-type, and taking themselves waaaaay too seriously as they struggle to produce another megahit album of terribly loud music.

The movie, unfortunately, only briefly touches on the Napster incident. But it makes it clear that it had a big enough impact on the band that they decided to keep their shrink around a little while longer to help them deal with the fallout.

We shouldn't be shocked that Metallica maybe didn't understand what Napster represented: A profound change in how people consume music. But we should be a little disappointed in the industry execs who should have been smarter and still don't seem to be. As Blender correctly points out, the industry went the legal route, rather than recognizing this was a game-changing technology that they'd need to figure out how to work with. Now there are a gazillion Napsters, all exchanging music people used to pay for.

I won't make apologies for people who engage in wholesale pirating of any sort of content. I also won't make excuses for an industry that refuses to accept that their old business model is broken. All the lawsuits in the world won't change that.

It's easy to get on your high horse when it comes to the record labels, of course. But as I nervously eye my Nano recharging on my desk, sans sparks or other acts of spontaneous combustion, I can say one thing with absolute certainty: when suing the customers is your best answer to changing technology, you have problems.