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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2001/05/22
by Mike Gruenberg

An Open Letter To The Record Companies Concerning Napster

Ever since I was old enough to buy my first record, I have been enamored with the workings of a record company. I vividly remember taking the subway into the city and finding certain newsstands that would carry publications like Billboard and Cashbox since those magazines never made their way to my neighborhood in Queens. As an inquisitive teenager, I would enjoy reading about the new artists, check what was the # 1 record in England and see which rock n roll star was signing a multi-year contract with a new record company. I thought that working at a record companies must be the coolest thing in the world. Uniting talented musicians with the public was almost a public service and as a bonus, the record company and the artists would earn millions of dollars just for playing their music. This was truly amazing to me. Of course, I was young and naive at the time, which explains a lot.
I am now fifty-five years old. I have over 5,000 items in my music collection ranging from 45s, LPs, Cassettes, 8-Tracks, Reel-to-reel tapes, CDs and my fathers old 78s. Clearly, I am a very good customer! In addition to buying all types of music on all types of media at various record stores, I am also a member of the BMG Record Club and attend many concerts. I am not looking to get something for nothing, but I am always looking for value. I am willing to pay for quality merchandise and realize that there is no such thing as the free lunch. I have been a sales and marketing executive for almost 25 years, so I know a fair bit about the selling and marketing of products. In essence, I have been keenly aware of the role the record companies play in bringing music into my life. As you know, the role of marketing is to create a need and the role of sales is to fill that need. Your job is to find talent, market their songs and allow us to buy the finished product. Anybody who can help you in the marketing of your product should be welcomed with open arms. Sounds quite simple and quite basic. So why are you people upset?
I had heard about Napster and wondered how this young man could cause you so much grief. My stepson downloaded the Napster program and the Music Match program on my home computer so that I could find songs on Napster and then transfer the songs of my choice to a CD. Quite frankly, I tried it and initially wasnt that impressed. The following week, my wife and I were scheduled to attend the Mark Knopfler concert at the Beacon Theater in New York. I knew of his work with Dire Straits, but I wasnt as well versed on his solo career. I therefore decided to go to the Napster site and find some of his music to preview it prior to the concert. Upon entering the site, I am greeted with statements about your blocking of the artists music on the site implying that Napster is taking money out your coffers and that the artists on your labels are being seriously short-changed due to this college kid. Undaunted and with great temerity, I found songs by Mr.Knopfler both as a solo and of course, with Dire Straits on the Napster site. I was impressed with the sound quality of the downloaded material and not impressed with the length of time it took to download. However, the experience was fun and we were then well prepared for the concert. Prior to Napster, the only way to get an indication of what was contained on an album was to listen on-line for brief 30-second snippets of sound. On the other hand, you could also go to the record store and use headphones at listening stations to hear the featured albums chosen by the store. I, for one refuse to place publicly used headphones on my ears without the knowledge that they have been disinfected from the previous user. Neither the brief listening on-line nor the medically inappropriate headphone listening station held much promise for me in determining whether or not I buy a particular album. We all have albums that we thought were great only to find that there was one good song and the rest pure nonsense and filler. I cannot remember if any record company ever had a policy where you could return unwanted albums because they were not very good although Im sure that certain record company executives may have been aware that some of their product may not be of the highest quality. Napster seems to help us find the music we like and cause you to produce better product so you can make more money for yourselves and your artists. So why are you people upset?
In my opinion, the legion of Napster users would gladly pay a monthly fee for the right to download and share music amongst the members. The majority of that money would go to you for distribution to your artists. You are not paying any distribution costs, you are not taking back unsold inventory from the record stores and with Napster you are giving the public a chance to select and pay for what they want. So why are you people upset?
I understand that artists are entitled to their royalties and they certainly deserve that income. I am somewhat amused when I see people like Don Henley testifying in Congress against Napster. His royalties on Hotel California alone make him one of the wealthiest men in the world. If he truly had the publics interest at heart, he would use his power to instruct the record company to sell all his music at a discount to thank his loyal fans for their support and their cash. In Mr. Henleys case, I would like to thank him for all the great music he has given us and I am happy to have contributed to his wealth, but Don and some of his wealthy colleagues should give a little back to his public instead of whining about Napster. As a spokesperson, you would be well advised to use a less famous artist whose financial condition is more in keeping with their average income fans.
The bottom line is that Napster presents us with choices. You should use the site for marketing of your entire roster of artists and charge a fee for usage. Whatever monies are derived from those fees should go to you and your artists. You may now be making a larger gross income from your current activities, but you certainly have enormous overhead costs from those activities. Fees derived from Napster users are pure profit for you, with virtually no overhead. So why are you people upset?
In closing, I hope that you reconsider your stance and embrace the Napster concept. By the way, as a result of hearing some Knopfler tunes on Napster and then at the Beacon, I bought the Sailing To Philadelphia album at Barnes & Noble.
Respectfully submitted

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