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MIT professor Ian Condry has posted a compelling analysis of what he sees as the two “cultures of piracy” shaping the music industries in Japan and in the United States. Both countries have experienced significant declines in sales over the past five years and both are inclined to blame those declines on music sharing among their core youth demographics. Interestingly, however, the internet plays almost no role in the decline of the Japanese music industry, which has been ascribed to sharing via cell phones and cd burners. One industry survey found in 2003 that more people had recorded music (66 percent) than purchased it (53 percent). In Japan, a new album may sell for the equivalent of $25 or more but be available for rental at local shops for only $3 within a week or two of its issue. Condry writes that music copying is so common that many youths refer to a newly purchased album not as a cd (shii dee) but as the “master,” (masutaa).

Just as significantly, while the American industry has responded by seeking legal actions against its own consumers, no such law suits have been filed in Japan, where industry leaders are seeking to understand why music fans think it is ok to share music. CD rental stores are so common in Japan that the industry has no hope of shutting down this alternative distribution outlet. Industry leaders have suggested that the aggressive commodification of music had led a generation to ignore its status as someone’s expressive output. They are seeking ways to rebuild consumer loyalty rather than demand customer obedience. This is consistent with general trends in Japanese industry to study fan groups, subcultures, and other consumption communities as, in effect, “petrie dishes” where experimentation and innovation occur. These companies hire resident anthropologists to map patterns of consumer interest and to understand the values consumers place on their relationship with companies. Such research helps to fuel innovation within companies, including sparking the development of new products to better fit the lifestyles they unearth.

Following the logic of the Japanese companies, Condry asks his students whether there are some forms of music they would always pay for and finds that many of them cite music which struggles to survive in the marketplace or where they have a strong identification with the artists. He suggests that like the Japanese fans, American college students are swayed by loyalty and recipricality rather than legality. The solution to the music industry crisis, he argues, is cultural not legal or economic and it involves changing the relations between music producers and consumers to emphasize shared interests rather than economic exploitation. Imagine that!

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