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Just for the record

By Terry Joseph
Dec 01, 1999

Coming up against the highly advanced technology and user-friendly strategies employed by today's music pirates, pedestrian anti-piracy campaigns-no matter how colourful-eventually amount to little more than a laugh.

Responses to last week's highly publicised "crackdown" on vendors of counterfeit cassette tapes by vocalist Ella Andall is only the most recent of such crusades by justifiably offended artistes. Having spent $80,000 on an album, it must hurt to see unauthorised copies of the product selling so much better than the genuine article.

But the history of that approach suggests that it simply has not produced lasting results. What it does more effectively is to highlight a continuing national misunderstanding of the piracy problem and show how far we are from reality.

Who but the Pope would pass up a chance to buy an illegal compilation cassette with 15 party hits for $20, when a compact-disc by a single artiste costs nearly six times that price and may only contain two songs the majority of customers really want to hear?

And it gets worse. If you plan to entertain friends and wish to legally buy all the popular songs playing on the radio and in the fetes, it could mean the purchase of ten CDs at a total cost of $1,150. The new releases you hear on air, however, are almost predictably unavailable in the music stores at that time.

In this country, you see, the supply of promotional material to radio often precedes bulk manufacture by at least a month, giving the pirates time to offer premium products at flea-market prices.

So, as you wend your way back across the Brian Lara Promenade, dejected by at your inability to secure the songs you wanted, you hear several of those same songs on a single cassette and discover that it costs just $20. Not only is it a heaven-sent bargain of gargantuan proportions, but the already cheaper format also offers 45 minutes of your preferred music, running non-stop, by simply putting in the cassette and pressing "play". Who could ask for more?

The pirates are therefore demonstrating a superior understanding of the marketplace than the very people who subscribe heaps of money and talent to create the original product. All the counterfeiters need do is forge links with unscrupulous radio personalities (or other persons with privileged access to the recordings), to secure their supply of source music, which comes from the very people to whom the artistes gleefully gave free copies of their creative works.

It is the business irony of the millennium. You give someone a copy of your song, hoping that by airing it he will help generate interest and sell copies for you. Instead, he conspires to make the copies and then, along with his cohorts, sells them and splits the booty. And if you think that by bringing in more police the problem will be solved, then think again.

Before the July 27, 1990 fire at Police Headquarters reportedly destroyed the relevant documents, more than 750 files on piracy cases (some dating back more than ten years) were being "actively compiled" for action by the courts. Amazingly, in the ensuing ten-year period, just a handful of arrests have been made and even fewer convictions recorded, with none of the determinations providing any measurable deterrent and police forever promising "new strategies" to deal with music pirates.

But if the police were really on the case, they would by now have noticed that most of the illegal cassette-vending carts, cassette labels and fittings are manufactured to the same specifications. This should suggest to the average flatfoot that there is a central facility supplying much of the product.

The artistes and their financiers might therefore wish to consider putting their time to more productive use, by studying the marketing appeal of the pirated product and attempting to replicate that approach to compilation, while the police seek to identify the source of mass production.

The hapless performers would then be better poised to come up with ways of providing punctual competition to the inevitable counterfeiters, rather than reducing themselves to engaging in piecemeal pursuits that do nothing but tilt at the real problem.

And the current hullabaloo only refers to illegal cassette manufacture. With recordable cds now available at retail stores and the ease with which computer hackers break through protective codes to download music from the internet, no artiste walking the pavement can fix even today's problem.

The attempts to date have been pathetic and do little more than heighten the artiste's profile for a few days. Specialised programmes are needed to fight tomorrow's high-tech piracy, which produces fakes that are visually indistinguishable from the real mcCoy.

Perhaps the strategy recently adopted by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), may be worth closer study by local authorities. Last August the RIAA mounted a new combative thrust, including monetary awards of up to TT$60,000 to any individual who provides the Association with information regarding illegal manufacturing locations.

After all, has it not struck anyone that the little guy on the sidewalk with the tapes is not really the person we should really be looking for?

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