There are few portrayals of the music industry that are more damning than the 1973 film "The Harder They Come."
The movie presents the story of an impoverished country boy named Ivan Martin, played by reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff, who moves to the Jamaican capital, Kingston, with dreams of becoming a recording star. When Martin finally realizes his dream, recording a song for the fictional Hilton label, he is offered a contract that surrenders all rights to the song in exchange for a payout of J$20, a mere US$0.44 at current exchange rates. (In fact, Cliff has said that as a teenager he was offered 1 shilling, or just US$0.07 by today's rates, for the rights to his first recorded song -- an offer he declined.)
In "The Harder They Come," Martin knows he's being exploited but he has no choice but to ultimately agree to the label's terms if he wants his song released. No radio station or dancehall in Kingston will play Martin's song without Hilton's backing. As one DJ tells Martin in a memorable scene, "This is show business, baby. No business, no show."
While singers and musicians make more than US$0.44 when they record a song these days, record labels still hold -- and jealously guard -- the rights to much of the music in their catalogs. Record labels, after all, make a good chunk of their money from those rights, taking a percentage of the price of each CD sold, for example.
In defense of this lucrative revenue stream, the recording industry has set its sights on technology that allows the creation of cheap digital copies of music. The first target was online file trading services, such as Napster Inc., which allow users to download songs in MP3 format for free. But record labels, represented by the Recording Industry Association of America Inc. (RIAA), have broadened their attack by claiming in February that CD-RW (CD-rewritable) burners -- which allow users to copy music CDs or burn MP3 files onto a CD from their PC -- have contributed to a decline in music sales.
In that case, RIAA officials won't like what they'll find at Taipei's Kwanghua Market. Tucked away beneath a highway overpass, Kwanghua Market is home to two floors of stalls selling mostly computer equipment and peripherals that are always crowded by throngs of shoppers.
For NT$8,000 (US$228) or less, users can buy a stand-alone 16-speed CD-RW burner at Kwanghua Market that is able to copy a music CD or a CD-ROM in less than 5 minutes, without needing to be connected with a US$1,000 PC. The same burner also allows users to create a music CD track by track -- a very convenient and perfectly legal means of putting together favorite songs on a single CD for personal use on a long road trip, for example.
Shell out a bit more and users can purchase a model with up to 10 CD-RW drives, theoretically allowing them to make 10 copies of a music CD at a single time. Excited RIAA lawyers may want to hold off on booking a flight to Taipei, however. While users are able to copy music CDs, these devices have a very legitimate -- and important -- use in companies or by individuals that need to make multiple copies of CD-ROMs, for such things as multimedia presentations or data back-up. The recording industry, whether it likes it or not, has to accept that these wider benefits outweigh their narrow concerns.
There's no doubt that advances in technology are changing the face of the recording industry in profound ways. Recording companies and executives that have grown fat on long-standing business practices have to accept that old ways of selling music must adapt to meet changes in technology. Revenue streams and business models must evolve. Those companies that refuse to accept this change are headed for the history books. Good riddance perhaps?
As Martin puts it in the song he records for Hilton, "The harder they come, the harder they fall. One and all."