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Forget DRM. It's the music

Studios remain shell-shocked by Napsterization, but CNET's Charles Cooper says the real solution isn't attacking pirates.

Pushing my vacuum cleaner around the living room last week, I suddenly did a double take. Chockablock with records, cassettes and CDs, the wall unit across from me contained my 35-year-old history as a music consumer.

Truth be told, I did download a few digital-music files here and there during Napster's heyday in the late 1990s. (Personal note to the RIAA: They've all since been deleted. I swear on my pet rock.) But I paid for most of the rest of my collection, down to the last penny. I bet you can say the same for the majority of the music-listening public.

So it was with a mix of amusement and disappointment that I read about the recent get-together for music industry executives, where the folks invited as talking heads took turns bashing Apple CEO Steve Jobs and offering pale prescriptions about how to fix what ails their business.

Blaming peer-to-peer technology has become the convenient undertaking of our times.

I don't want to get into an argument about which generation created the best music. Personally, I'm partial to jazz and classical, though I can't deny that I dig a lot of hip-hop. But is it possible--or even likely--that the falloff in music sales has more to do more with the quality of contemporary music than with digital piracy? We obviously have an enormous appetite for schlock, but there are limits.

With all due respect to the high-quality bands working for a living, the studios have always chosen the easy out by shoving numbingly formulaic, bad music down the public's throat. For most of the postwar era, that was the way things worked. Then came the Internet, which ushered in the revenge of the music buyer.

The studios shouldn't be surprised at what happened. Throughout their history, they routinely targeted Top 40 titles at teenagers and early twentysomethings. The irony is that these folks make up the demographic most likely to pirate music.

The studios have always chosen the easy out by shoving numbingly formulaic, bad music down the public's throat.

Instead of threatening to sue their own (potential) customers, why don't they do more to monetize the growing demand for oldies and indie music? Fans clearly are willing to pay it. What's so hard about finding a way to make that work? With a little creativity, the studios could find ways to better promote musicians who cater to these--and other--demographic categories, in which digital piracy isn't the fashion. All the consumer wants in return is a fair value.

Instead, the industry's best and brightest continue to look elsewhere.

For instance, they insist on clinging to digital right management as if it were a lifeboat. Pardon the cliche, but that ship has sailed. The endless wrangling over Jobs' call to get rid of DRM is so irrelevant. Same goes for their tired refrains, blaming the likes of you and me for their plight.

To wit: Ted Cohen, who directs music consulting for Tag Strategic, says the solution is "to get money flowing from consumers and get them used to paying for music again."

Really? It's not as if we haven't been paying all along. With all the high-powered MBAs in their employ, it's hard to fathom why the music industry can't move beyond finger-pointing and develop a more creative approach. I can understand the angst expressed by Cohen and his music industry cohorts about the future, but squeezing music fans for a few more shekels isn't the answer.

These folks are still shell-shocked from the Napsterization of their business, which has suffered a 23 percent decline in worldwide sales the last six years. Blaming peer-to-peer technology has become the convenient undertaking of our times. But it's useful to recall that people didn't stop buying books or maps when the Xerox machine hit. Customers will pay for worthwhile products, even if they can get free lower-quality copies.

There's a better reason to explain what's gone wrong. It's the product, stupid.

Then again, maybe I'm simply showing my age.