Back in 2001, the New Zealand music industry organisation Recording Industry Association of New Zealand (RIANZ; now known as Recorded Music NZ) launched a campaign to combat the new practice of illicitly burning copies of CDs, which deprived artists and record companies of income. The campaign was called BRN>BRNT, i.e. “burn and get burnt” and its aim was to educate young people that burning CDs or buying burnt CDs was not cool.
The campaign’s name was inspired by newfangled text-speak, targeting the youth who were texting and burning, burning and texting. And probably even texting about burning. (Here’s a funny side effect of the spelling – in HTML, > is the code for the greater-than symbol, so while I was googling up about BRN>BRNT, I kept finding webpages that had displayed the name as BRN>BRNT, which is truthful, though unfortunate for the campaign.)
The idea was that around New Zealand, enterprising whippersnappers were burning copies of popular CDs on their home computers, then taking them to school and selling them. A Herald article noted that, “American pop act Destiny’s Child, English rock star Robbie Williams and Britney Spears are said to be big sellers. Kiwi music is also holding its own in the playground, with Che Fu and the Feelers in high demand.”
This is nothing new. Back in my day, it was very ordinary to lend friends one of your tapes so they could go home and dub off a copy on their Sanyo ghettoblaster. No one was selling anything, but maybe you’d buy a blank tape for your friend to dub onto. Back then, my friends and I didn’t have $15 to plonk down for every new tape we wanted, just as the kids of 2001 didn’t have an unlimited supply of cash for those $35 CDs.
Oh, but other rapscallions were selling burnt CDs down at local markets. How dare members of the public have the option of paying $10 or even $5 for a CD that should rightfully be retailing for $35? Something had to be done.
Well, the industry’s reaction was to launch a campaign that included Dave Dobbyn in burn makeup looking like he was going to a fancy dress party as a comedy Satan, warning the burners not to burn. The Herald article noted, “Dave Dobbyn is probably less popular with the kids.” Well, he’s no Beyonce.
The campaign was all over the media, including youth and music media. I remember full-page ads in music magazines with Dave Dobbyn’s red face imploring kids to just stop it.
It was ok to laugh at the campaigns of the 1980s designed to stop home taping, but the BRN>BRNT campaign was serious. If they didn’t do something, all those home burners would kill the music industry. Or as a passionate writer at NZGirl put it, “if you continue to purchase pirated CD’s your killing your own dream”.
This was all happening at the same time as labels were starting to introduce copy-protected CDs, which made no one happy, and could be cracked with basic geek skills. And then there was the awkwardness of Sony’s electronics division manufacturing CD burners and blank CDs while its music division raged against them. Worth reading is this forum discussion at electronic music culture website Biggie from 2002 – the smart music lovers of the site aren’t convinced.
I was a couple of years outside the campaign’s target age group of 12-to-24-year-olds and I didn’t own a CD burner and so didn’t do any burning (though I did rip a lot of my own CDs so I could listen to them on my brand new iPod). At the time, I did acquire a few CDs that friends had burnt for me – but most of them I didn’t even listen to, like a compilation of ska-punk tracks. My legit CD collection at the time was massive, and it’s where most of my disposable income went. But then, I wasn’t a 12-year-old with $20 a week pocket money.
So was the BRN>BRNT campaign a success? Well, former RIANZA president Michael Glading admitted in 2004 that the locally-focused campaign mostly inspired people not to burn albums by New Zealand artists only. When it’s Bic Runga and Stella fronting the campaign, it’s easy to see it as being about supporting local artists, whereas Britney and Beyonce, well, they’re millionaires already. And this wasn’t helped by the bling culture of the ’00s, where musical videos presented popstars as if they were living large – even if it was all a facade.
Music manager Campbell Smith told the Herald in 2004 that “The sentiment of the BRN>BRNT campaign was bang-on, but it always smacked to me of being a bit hastily put together. It seemed a little bit cheesy in the end.” And I think that’s pretty accurate. Despite its good intentions, the campaign’s message weirdly distilled down to “You should not copy that really cool Destiny’s Child CD because it will make some old New Zealand musician feel like he’s had really bad sunburn.”
And here’s another curious thing about life after the BRN>BRNT campaign: no one burns CDs anymore. Yes, no sensible 12-year-old is going to spend $5 on buying a burned CD in the schoolyard when they can legitimately stream it for free on Spotify or watch the video on YouTube.
The Herald article noted that one argument was that people copy CDs because they’re too expensive, with the counter argument from the music industry being that “the price of a CD reflects the money and effort which has gone into making and promoting the album”. Well, there’s another curious thing – during the BRN>BRNT campaign, a full price CD cost as much as $35. Now a full price album on iTunes is around only $16-$18.
And who buys CDs any more? Old people? Fans of Sole Mio and X Factor winners? (Third-place-getter Benny Tipene was amused that his debut single was being released on CD.) The technological issue that BRN>BRNT was trying to fight against was solved not by educating the public. Instead the troublesome technology itself changed the music business so massively and so quickly that CDs are now all but a relic of a bygone era.
When I was googling for info on BRN>BRNT, I was surprised at how few images remain from the campaign, being that it was so well known for the visuals of its ads and posters. What remains are tiny, low-res images, pixelly artefacts. That seems highly symbolic. These digital remnants of an earlier age, back when it seemed that technology was going to eat the music industry, not realising it had already been eaten.
Update: Courtesy of Lower Hutt’s finest musician, Disasteradio, comes these photos of the BRN>BRNT sticker in the wild. The threat of a $10,000 loomed over anyone thinking about copying this easy listening compilation CD. Also of interest – the CD was full priced at $34.99, then reduced to $24.99. Today a cheap-as chillout compilation album on iTunes can be found for as little as $11.99, while the Chillout Lounge playlist on Spotify costs $0.