Jesse James nation

Friday's FT readers were treated to one of the more bizarre stories in the very public death of the recorded music industry. Tucked into the paper's business section was a piece entitled "Music industry 'should embrace illegal websites'." The story suggested that even when consumers could get music for free, they still chose to break the law and steal it online:

The music industry should embrace illegal file-sharing websites, according to a study of Radiohead’s last album release that found huge numbers of people downloaded it illegally even though the band allowed fans to pay little or nothing for it.

225pxjesse_james The Radiohead experiment with its last album, In Rainbows, allowed consumers to choose their own price to download the product. The result of this clever marketing stunt when the album was released last October was that 60% of Radiohead fans downloaded In Rainbows for nothing, thereby essentially reducing the price of the product to zero. But, as a report from web metrics firm Big Champagne reveals, even this wasn't enough to get consumers to obey the law. In spite of the legal giveaway of In Rainbows, the report reveals that "almost 400,000 illegal torrent downloads were made on the first day and 2.3m in the 25 days following the album’s release, compared with a full-week’s peak of just 158,000 for the next most popular album of the period."

So what to conclude from this bizarre story? For Big Champagne's Eric Garland, the co-author of the report, this suggests that the labels should come in from the cold and join the thieves:

He urged record companies to study the outcome and accept that file-sharing sites were here to stay. “It’s time to stop swimming against the tide of what people want,” he said.

But there's a problem in Garland's logic. Once record labels embrace the illegal file-sharing sites, then these digital outlaw 'hoods will lose their lustre. It's become so fashionable to break the law that people would obviously rather steal than download free music legally. Thus the labels -- as media policemen surrounded by an online nation of Jesse James' -- will inevitably tarnish any attempt to legally give away their product.

The challenge, then, for the music business is to figure out how to monetize today's fashion of stealing. This is all part, of course, of today's digital uprising against authority, against political parties, against mainstream media. Perhaps the labels should open fake pirate sites that trick consumers in thinking that they are stealing music. That might titillate a Jesse James nation that gets its kicks from breaking the law.