How would you like to get the RIAA off your back for less than 10 bucks a month?
That's what more than 670,000 college students are doing by trading in their illegal peer-to-peer file-sharing networks like BearShare and WinMX for legit (and, perhaps more importantly, affordable) music services.
One of those companies currently gaining ground among young people is Ruckus, a Virginia digital-entertainment network that caters specifically to college students by blending their top interests — think music, movies and TV, meshed with the social woos of the Facebook and MySpace — resulting in one behemoth music/ social networking hub many are considering worthy of their hard-earned cash.
After a year's worth of negotiations, Ruckus scored licensing arrangements with four of the major record labels — Universal Music, Sony BMG, Warner Music and EMI — plus hundreds of independent-music labels eager to have their catalogs heard.
"We basically told these guys, 'OK, here's what we're up to: We want to combat piracy on campus. We recognize that it's an issue and that there aren't many good, affordable legal alternatives out there for students, and that's what we want to provide,' " said Charles P. Moore, senior vice president of corporate development for Ruckus. "But in order to do that, we need to work out an arrangement that will allow us to sell it for a low-enough price to a school so they can actually pay for the service on behalf of their students."
Over 22 colleges around the country have inked deals with Ruckus — including University of Southern California, Arizona State University and Syracuse University — which is up from the original eight that signed on when the service launched in October 2004.
That's quite a departure from two years ago when less than a handful of institutions had deals with legal music services, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Now more than 70 colleges and universities are a part of some legal downloading network (although there are 3,500 total in the States).
"We all know that music is really a very important part of a student's lifestyle and they're going to share music and they're going to get music, so we wanted to provide them with an ethical, legal alternative to peer-to-peer file-sharing," said George E. Gulbis, associate vice president and director of information technology at Ohio Northern University, which provides the service free of charge to its 3,500 students.
However, not all students are so lucky. Students at USC have to shell out $9.95 a semester for the music service. A movie subscription is available for another 10 bucks, while a combined subscription including both will set you back $25.
In addition to its vast catalogue of 1.3 million songs, Ruckus also offers more than 100 full-length movies and a host of television shows that rotate on a monthly basis, thanks to a recent deal with Warner Home Video. And with the click of a mouse, students can download a peer's complete playlist, create a personalized member profile stating their favorite artists and bands, and, if a buddy is online, shoot them an IM.
"Initially I wasn't impressed with the service at all when it started over a year ago," admitted Wren Keber, a senior at Alfred State College in New York, "but the new service they currently offer is exemplary. It's updated almost instantly as new music is released, and I'd recommend it to anyone."
Keber says he's downloaded about 20GBs' worth of music since he subscribed, amassing tracks from ranging from Weezer, Fall Out Boy, Switchfoot and Papa Roach. "Basically, if you name it, Ruckus has it," he added.
While the RIAA confirmed that there are fewer instances of piracy on college networks that offer students a legal alternative, students are still using other money-saving alternatives to expand their music collection, like swapping CDs with friends.
"I don't see the RIAA ever completely stopping the theft of music or other media," Keber said. "There are too many workarounds."
Still, the RIAA refuses to stop filing action against illegal downloaders. To date, they have issued over 900 lawsuits against students who have used a college network to download music, according to the RIAA.
"Piracy, [both] online and on the street, continues to plague the music community and its partners, [and] those who are profiting from the theft of copyrighted music should be held accountable," said Mitch Bainwol, chairman of the RIAA. "Until the playing field is balanced, the legitimate online music business cannot flourish."
"Undoubtedly, we still have a major challenge on our hands as far too many students are still getting their music for free," RIAA spokesperson Jonathan Lamy agreed. "The general notion is that the more logical alternatives there are for college students, the better, but we still have yet to see how a legal file-sharing service fits into the larger market."