Monday, November 4, 2013

ARTICLE: Who Would That Inconvenience?

[Clearly, in 2004 I was in a prolific self-publishing mode. I didn’t even try to find a home for some of these articles, as strongly as I felt then or now about their relevance.]

You can't read an entertainment or computer magazine without running into an article or ad about how much "damage" is being done to the nation's creativity by "intellectual rights theft."  The game manufacturers are, apparently, going broke because so many people are "stealing" game software.  The music industry execs are all living in cardboard boxes in New York and LA's back alleys because nobody is buying music, we're all stealing it through MP3s online.  And those poor, poor software designers are working nights at SuperAmerica to support their creativity because everyone is bootlegging software.  Billy Gates has sold his mansions and lives in a Seattle commune with 35 other desperate, but dedicated-to-their-art, Microsoft employees.  Congress and the international community needs to "do something" to protect these poor, starving, and productive folks before these vital industries are starved into non-existence.

Or not. 

I think not.  For instance, the music industry thinks nothing of "giving away" it's product on the radio.  Radio stations "give" us more of the music industry's product than most of us want to hear.  Sure, they're selling ads and using the music as a loss-leader to attract listeners, but they have worked overtime to own the broadcast business so that they have easy access to free distribution of their god-awful products.  How that is different than the distribution of these same products through websites is too indistinct for my sensitivities.  I'll admit that I'm not particularly sensitive to the needs of overstuffed executives and their desperate desire to own everything from natural resources to original thought.  But I do believe that if you give away your product in one venue, you've given up the right to be able to protect it in another.  The Supreme Court thought the same way when they prevented record companies from limiting the use of cassette recorders, 30 years ago. 

But my real reason for writing this article is to address the pitiful condition of software companies.  In our industry, bootlegged software is as common as guitar picks.  At the tech school where I sometimes teach, I hear about the use of "illegal" versions of every program from ProTools to Sonar to Logic to $50 plug-ins and $10 sampled loop CDs.  Everything you might ever want to own is available, for free, in a bootleg version.  Acquaintances who aren't even involved in the music business have copies of programs that I couldn't justify buying if I didn't need to eat regularly. 

Software manufacturers estimate that they've "lost" somewhere between two hundred million to a billion-zillion dollars due to software bootlegging.  According to their estimates, everyone on the planet would have purchased their products if they hadn't had access to illegal versions.  Some of us would, surely, have bought those products several times if legal channels were the only way we could obtain software.  Software companies have moved from vaporware to vapor markets.  Their hallucinations of wealth and power have infected the magazines with whom they advertise, too.

I beg to disagree.  In fact, I'd bet that the opposite of their argument is true.  I'd argue that if bootleg "test" software wasn't available, most of us wouldn't bother with computers at all.  The computer industry has made that a fact by its inability to build reliable, quality products.  The business tells us that bootleg software is unreliable and to obtain reliability we should pay for the software and pay again for the minimal "customer support" provided by the manufacturers.  Experiences tells us that the words "unreliable" and "software" are inseparable.  It doesn't matter if you pay for software or if you steal it, it's going to be unstable, undependable, buggy, and a constant irritant.  And you're going to have to pay, over and over again, for future versions that "fix" a few problems and create a lot more. 

That's a great business, if you can find it.  Build a crappy, unreliable product and follow that up by charging your customers extra for "supporting" your mistakes.  That is the next step beyond planned obsolescence, assuming that your customers don't revolt.

Basing a home studio around bootleg software is a risky business, because putting any faith in software is an act of unfounded faith.  The products are, simply, buggy as a Tijuana hotel bed.  Software crashes, we reboot, software crashes again, this time rebooting for us, and we pay more money in the foolish hope that, this time, the code will be more reliable.  The more features we get, the less reliable the software becomes.  It's an endless, unproductive closed-loop.  Many users are honestly "test driving" software by using hacked versions.  On the rare occasion that a piece of software is actually useful, many users turn from test drivers to legitimate owners.  I see it happen with students all the time. 

Occasionally, a company screws up and releases a version of software that crashes less often than its competition.  When that happens, many users end their search for improvement and get back to doing productive work.  A few months ago, I read a business computer article about a large number of businesses who are still using Microsoft's Windows for Workgroups, version 3.11, and the associated version of Office, because it did the job that needed doing.  Those of us who migrated to Windows 95, 98, 2000, ME, and XP often think that the few functioning features we've gained haven't repaid the investment in retraining, debugging, and the reliability problems we've suffered in transition. 

What would happen if every computer user decided to quit chasing the holy grail of the newest, coolest version of software and found something that worked reasonable well and stuck with it?  There are a fair number of analog studios out there who have gone back (or stayed) to 20 year old technology and spend their time tweaking reliable and functional technology and making music.  Computer recordists could do the same thing.  Quality work was done on almost every version of almost every program.  We could have all quit looking for something new at any time in the last decade or two. 

Of course, that would break the software company income chain.  If every software company in the industry went broke and vanished tomorrow, who would that inconvenience?  If we all were forced to use the products we're using today for the next fifty years, would we stop recording music?  If today's software glitches and crashes became a constant, known, and never-ending irritant, would that make a lick of difference to people currently using that software?  You know it wouldn't.

If the state of the art never moved an inch from its current status, we'd still be doing what we're doing today.  We'd be recording music, burning CDs, cutting vinyl, posting MP3s to websites, and looking for the next cool music.  The profits or losses of software companies means nothing to the flow of music.  We have the tools we need and a hell of a lot of tools that nobody needs.  Software companies have their problems and we have ours and the two have nothing to do with each other. 

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.