There’s nothing wrong with not owning the music you listen to
There’s been a lot of sharing of this article where David Lowery (of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven fame) responds to a NPR intern who wrote about barely have bought any music at all. The Lowery article has been eating away at me, because arguments like that drive me absolutely insane. Its a noble argument, but logically wrong.
First and most importantly, digital music files are simply not comparable to physical records. It’s a concept that’s hard to wrap your head around, but digital media has no apt comparison. We’ve never dealt with this in human history: a product whose inventory is infinite and has nothing physical to change hands.
I think it can be best summed up with an argument I saw recently that was responding to a campaign against digital piracy that asked “You wouldn’t steal a car, would you?”, to which the response came, “If I could make an exact copy of the car without doing any damage or changing ownership of the original, I probably would.”
Think about it: up until the digital age, the concept of “stealing” was always clear. There is a physical piece of property, and stealing it means removing the ownership from one person and giving it to another. In the digital age, both people have ownership of it. It is not in any way “looting”, as Lowrey claims in his terrible analogy of a town called “the ‘Net”. Copying files is not the same as stealing. It’s not the same as anything. It’s something that requires a completely new way of thinking, and connecting it to past methods is futile.
Secondly, musicians and labels charge for recordings because they can, not because it’s ethically right to charge for it. When recorded music first started, it made logical sense to sell it, because it was a physical product that cost money to record and produce. It was very simple: if you wanted to listen to a song whenever you wanted, you had to pay for it. That is why people purchased albums, not because they made a clear choice to support art with their dollars and this is a value that today’s digital culture has devalued.
This is essentially what Emily White was getting at: she hasn’t bought much music because she hasn’t needed to. Music is all around her and easy to grab from multiple different places. Like a lot of digital consumers, it’s not that she’s making a conscious choice away from digital music stores, but rather than she very rarely has to make that conscious decision. Music is just everywhere now, not just at record stores.
We buy (or download) music for one reason: because we want to hear it. We bought LPs and CDs because that’s the way that we could hear it. We share files and fire up bittorrent because that’s the way we can hear it. You might choose buying over file sharing because you like the idea of some money going to the artist, but you’re not buying it because you want to support the artist. It’s a small distinction, but an important one.
Thirdly, non-official channels offer a better product. White talks about how she wants “convenience” (a poor choice of words), and Lowrey jumps on that with “how hard is it to enter a password?” But what White means is that people are going to gravitate to whatever gives them what they want. She dreams of the ability to have her entire library on Spotify (and Lowrey completely misses that White’s ideal is a legal method that pays artists), because that’s the place where she most wants to listen to music. But she can’t have everything that she wants on Spotify, because like all the services and stores, it’s bound by legal agreements that keep her from truly having the music experience she wants. File sharing has none of those boundaries.
The vast majority of file sharers are not greedy pirates who laugh in the face of the poor artists who are just trying to make a decent living. Music is something that they at least enjoy and maybe even love, but they just want to hear it. That’s it. So they go where the music is, and file sharing—with its lack of release days; its wide variety of formats and bitrates; its lack of concept of “out of print” or “not available in your country”—offers the best and easiest solution.
Finally, musicians are not owed a living from their music. Musicians making money off of recordings (which, by the way, they still do) was a great time, but it’s nothing but a business model, not artistic justice.
This argument was brilliantly put by a man who’s as great of a thinker as he is a musician, Brian Eno:
I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn’t last, and now it’s running out. I don’t particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. Sorry mate – history’s moving along.
It’s wonderful that people were not just able to make money, but it was that way because the product was physical and clear cut: some thing to buy. It isn’t anymore, and we owe it to ourselves to get our heads around the new world and think of new ways to support artists, rather than insisting people do things in the way we’re used to and understand.
Ultimately, Lowrey’s arguments (echoed by the dozens of people who have shared his article with hearty agreement) are as hurtful to musicians as any file sharing. The conversations need to be around how we can keep art as a viable career, not how we can keep things the way they were.
Google Music review: good, but still nothing life-changing
My Google Music invite came through a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure what took so long, since they surely would want an internet superstar like me who has ALMOST A DOZEN RSS SUBSCRIBERS to give it a whirl, but whatever. Google, ammiright?
The short story of the pros: it’s pretty slick for something that’s playing from the cloud. The short story of the cons: it still falls well short of what I’m looking for in a cloud music player, which I could also say about Lala’s old player, Amazon’s and even what little I’ve seen of Apple’s offering. I’m picky.
The player itself is actually pretty nice. Songs play quickly and the view switches quickly. Usability is good and intuitive. I’m not sure how I feel about the orange overkill, but overall, the player is probably the smoothest that I’ve seen of any of the cloud music offerings. It’s light years better than Lala’s now-defunct player, but Amazon’s player is pretty quick as well.
You can drag and drop songs within playlists, which is nice. There’s not a way to create automatic playlists like iTunes’ fantastic smart playlists function, but I would guess that feature is coming.
The uploader is extremely slow, but it’s also made me realize that my problem may be in my wireless connection. Other people have reported that they’ve uploaded 1000 or so songs in about half a day or so. It’s taken me days of constant uploading to get to that point. So it’s obviously more than just the uploader software. Still, the uploading is a problem.
Instant Mixes: These (“Instant mixes use a combination of metadata and audio analysis to create playlists that match the mood and style of your selection”) work about as well as the Genius playlists in iTunes, which is to say that they’re basically functional, but their music grouping is pretty substantially flawed. I created a playlist based on Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend”, and it threw in a live version of Gladys Knight and the Pips “I Heard It Through The Grapvine”, but didn’t include Oasis’s “Champagne Supernova”. It seems more like these are just random or based on BPM rather than similar styles of music. It would make more sense just to stick with shuffle play.
Thumbs up/down: There’s been a lot of study that shows that like/dislike options work better than five star ratings, but that’s just for giving feedback. I’m a huge fan of the five star ratings within iTunes as it lets me get much greater control over my playlists, and thumbs up/down isn’t nearly as useful for me. Thumbs down.
Library management. Not great. I’m sure that the ability to view your library as a list or as album covers is coming, but at the moment, you either find an artist or song by doing a lot of scrolling or doing a search, neither of which is ideal.
Other features I’d like to see:
- Different display options, like having a list view of album covers with the songs next to it
- Have a “recently played” auto mix
- Have a way to switch to the song/view currently playing, like iTunes’ ctrl-L
- Have a “date added” column in the view as well as a year column. Basic stuff that I sure hope is coming.
- Something like iTunes DJ: an ongoing, temporary playlist
- Have some sort of social aspect: add friends and see what they’re listening to and liking, a combo of last.fm and Lala’s old social ticker.
Anyone else out there have experiences with Google Music?
What can the music industry do to slow piracy? Improve the product
Last week brought my attention to a couple visual jabs at how DRM encourages piracy (here and here) in books and movies. The bottom line: piracy’s reach is larger because it provides a better, easier product than the legit stuff.
The music industry has learned a lot of lessons in the last ten years, but it still hasn’t figured out that the wall-less world we now live in requires that the industries think of illegal sharing not as piracy, but as a competing product. And the legitimate businesses are slow to compete. Here’s what the music business need to do to provide as good a product as piracy offers (and provide the kinds of lessons that the sellers of movies and books can really learn from):
Offer high-quality versions
While bitrates have gotten better over the years in mp3 stores like Lala and Amazon mp3, there’s still no variety. The only way you can legally get a fully lossless digital version of an album is to buy the CD and rip it, leaving you with a CD you don’t want. Anyone who’s ever been on Oink or any of the other private bittorrent trading sites will tell you that you can download albums in just about any format and quality you want.
Lower the price
I should not be paying $9.99 for a digital product. The standard for digital music should be half that: five dollars for an album, 50 cents for a song. The fact that 10 dollars is not really that much for an album isn’t a good enough reason. Don’t make the price point high enough to make people start researching how they can get it cheaper, because they’ll pretty quickly find that they can find it as cheap as it gets.
Provide flawless meta-data
One of the downsides of downloading music off the grid is that you get whatever you’re given. Some other user’s ratings, comments, and weird system of tagging. It’s a drag. So why do I often have to put in the year when buying from legal stores? Why do I have to fix the song titles and even the name of the band? There’s no excuse for the legal stores to have songs that are anything less than perfectly tagged.
Offer easy, customizable, non-restrictive embedding of full songs
Music bloggers don’t post mp3s because they want to illegally distribute: they just want people to be able to hear the songs they’re talking about. The industry needs to let stores offer embeddable songs and albums in the way that Lala has done, but without any restrictions at all: no sign-in required, full songs, customizable player. Even with Lala on the scene and the interesting Soundcloud/Hype Machine partnership, it’s still not enough. It needs to be as good a listening experience as you can get by posting the mp3s. And it’s nowhere near there.
Let artists offer their music for free through the for-sale channels
I don’t know why services don’t make it easier to allow their albums and songs to be downloaded for free through the online music stores. Imagine how much more attractive the iTunes music store would be if it had thousands of free songs as well; if up-and-coming bands who would rather give their songs away could point to iTunes and Amazon mp3 instead of Bandcamp.
…pushing people to free download resources is bad for the industry not just because it’s taking money out of their pockets in the present, but it’s encouraging people to learn how to find good sources of pirated material, meaning that as time goes on, more and more people with comfortable with skirting the law. That’s something that none of the intellectual property owners can let happen in large numbers.
Some scattered thoughts on the money of digital music
If you haven’t already read Digital Audio Insider’s interview with Camper Van Beethoven’s Jonathan Segal¹, it’s a must read for anyone with even a slight interest in digital music and the money of the industry. Segal has tons of thoughts on just about every aspect of digital music, but best of all, he brings in these thoughts as someone whose initial music industry experience was in the days of purely-physical media, when “pirating” meant copying something onto a blank tape.
My main takeway is general and obvious but an important reminder: we are in a transition time for music, and what it will become is anyone’s guess. I think Segal’s take on merchandise and live performances taking the place as artist’s primary source of income as “asinine” is too harsh to be true, but I do think that we’re in such a state of transition that any shot at predicting artistic income in the future is completely in the dark. Such predictions are really only done as people try to grasp on to what they know. It may turn out to be true, but more likely, any future music profit is probably in something that we have a hard time thinking of right now.
I think that in the short term at least, creativity will flourish as people have much lesser expectations of making money. In my band in the mid 90’s, our high hopes were a massive burden. We constantly tried to figure out what labels we should contact and what important shows we should be playing and where and with who. It was part our personalities and ages, of course, but the idea that we could possibly do this for a living was a dream we were constantly chasing.
As my current band sets to put out our second release—the digital distro of which we’ll be taking care of ourselves—I’m stuck in between the desire to try and at least make back the money that we spent on the recording—however unlikely that might be—and just giving it away free: simply getting our music to as many people as possible. At this point, the former wins out, at least because I’m so curious about what’s possible for a band reaching out to the world from their computers. With social media and the various services and tools dedicated to artists, can we actually sell enough songs and albums to at least make a decent dent in our expenses? Or has the world changed enough so that music can no longer even be profitable?
Whatever happens, I’ll share our experiences with you as we gear up for our record’s release in May/June, as well as what happens after that. It’ll be an interesting ride.
¹ I should probably mention that I put extra weight in Segal’s opinion because Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart broke new ground in my musical taste in the late 80’s. I still love that record.