The Electric Commentary

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Record Companies Know Not What They Sell

The National Banana Distributors Association today filed suit against four college students at North Carolina A&T for illegally distributing shared bananas. This suit comes in the wake of a nationwide campaign to snuff out illegal banana distribution, which has seen more than 400 lawsuits and an aggressive congressional lobbying effort by the NBDA to enact stricter fruit-copying laws.

Banana production and distribution, for most of human history, has consisted of banana farmers, who grow the bananas, and their distribution network, which packs and ships the bananas to destinations across the globe. Banana distributors (NBDA) have until recently always been involved due to the inherent difficulties of getting bananas to the public, as banana shipping was a delicate process.

Bananas used to require special shipping boxes to avoid bruising and to keep them from ripening too early. They also required smooth transportation and temperature-controlled trucks. The NBDA has had its network in place for over 150 years, first specializing in railway transportation, and moving to air transportation in the early 1960s. While the cost of banana production was low, and the profits generally quite small (with the exception of a few efficient and popular types of banana, specifically the patented “U2 banana” or “Bonona” which produces revenues in the tens of millions of dollars on an annual basis) the profits from transporting and storing bananas was immense.

On an average consumer banana purchase of about 35 cents, the producer would see only a fraction of a cent, while the NBDA would net between 10 and 20 cents.

Of course this all changed in late 1998 when Texas A&M freshman Sean Fanning invented “Banapster,” a revolutionary new banana that could be instantly transported anywhere over a simple phone line (or cable). It was easy to grow, delicious, and best of all, would immediately reproduce a copy of itself (spontaneous asexual reproduction) upon being shipped, leaving the shipper with another banana for his personal use.

Banana producers were wary of the new banana at first. An unfortunate side effect was that this banana was easy for anyone to steal. College students famously sat around for days at a time accumulating bananas. Even the Bonona was Banapsterized in 1990. The diminutive Danish geneticist Lars Ulrich, inventor of the Metallanana (popularized in 1991 in the “black smoothie”) railed against the technology in the media, calling it a violation of his "intellectual property rights." However most producers eventually embraced the technology as it allowed them to cut out a lot of overhead and sell directly to the public.

Smaller producers in particular benefited from the Banapsterized banana. Distribution costs kept many of them living at a subsistence level if they could even manage to get a distribution deal. The NBDA overlooked most of these smaller producers, as they still had exclusive deals with Bonona and several other large producers (The aforementioned Metallanana, an assortment of overly sweet Swedish influenced bananas, and of course the ubiquitous JayZana, whose signature “Black Banana” was cross-pollinated on the Banapster network with the revolutionary “White Banana” created in 1968 in Liverpool, England, to form the widely popular “Gray Banana”). They eventually came to regret this decision.

Even though the NBDA successfully shut down the Banapster Network in 1999, they could not stop the new distribution technology from spreading. After all, Banapster seeds were everywhere, and no one can monitor what goes on inside of phone lines. Large producers started using the new technology for distribution as well as promotion.

In late 2004 Bonona and the hugely popular Eminana both released early Banapster versions of their (soon to be released via conventional methods) new bananas against the wishes of the NBDA. Both bananas set sales records while outperforming most bananas firmly under the NBDA’s control.

Even though the NBDA is still fighting, and still suing their customers, it is clear that they will eventually have to have a major shift in their business models or face bankruptcy. They sell boxes, trucks, and advertising to producers, and now that producers no longer need boxes and trucks the role of the NBDA is greatly reduced. They may hide behind the notion of intellectual property, but this argument holds no water. New bananas are produced all the time. Many are sold via Banapster technology for easy storage on the B-Pod. Producers are still producing, as their profits remain largely unchanged, and even increased in some instances. Those producers that hold large touring farmers' markets have reaped enormous revenues due to the advertising potential of Banapster technology.

The truth is that producers no longer need the NBDA because producers are in the business of selling bananas, and people still want bananas. The NBDA moved bananas. Now that bananas move themselves, the NBDA will have to move on as well.

Or risk going bananas.

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