Numbers Don't Lie?

As the saying goes, there are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics. Statistics can be used to help understand what goes on in the world, but, as any marketing exec or PR company knows, they can also be manipulated to tell a particular story.

Two weeks ago we reported on the RIAA's latest, alarming assessment of the music market, which, they report, dropped another 7% in the first six months of 2002 compared to 2001. The RIAA blames digital piracy for their ills, and has taken a hardline position against any unofficial online trading or streaming of audio files.

But there is more than one way to interpret those sales numbers and the data behind them, according to columnist Dan Bricklin, writing for his website. In fact, Bricklin finds that if the RIAA is right about peer-to-peer networks and CD burners damaging CD sales, then, when combined with other negative factors such as a slow economy, the numbers should look a lot worse.

Instead, in his essay "The Recording Industry is Trying to Kill the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg," Bricklin argues that file trading is one of the few factors that may have prevented the RIAA from having to report far worse sales damage in recent years.

Bricklin, who made his fame as co-creator of VisiCalc, knows his way around statistics, and in his essay he generates a few of his own. After crunching RIAA sales figures and revenue generated for various music formats over the last several years, he concludes that, while unit sales numbers have indeed dropped, "revenue has not dropped as much because of an unprecedented 7% rise in prices."

Using the RIAA's own reasoning—that access to free music is killing sales—Bricklin trots out another set of numbers suggesting that radio should be a much greater negative factor than online file trading. However, he points out that, in the end, finding and buying music is a complicated emotional process, and that the RIAA's statistics, reasoning, and actions may be making matters worse.

"They are trying to use legislation to hobble computing in general to get what they incorrectly think they need," says Bricklin. "This is wrong and shortsighted, and will result in many undesirable side effects. It is bad for them and it is bad for society."