Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Sound of a Brand New World - part two

(And now, part two of the Fingertips Commentary piece examining the In Rainbows phenomenon. Read part one, below, or see the entire essay--plus footnotes--on the main Fingertips site.)

However the the music industry in the digital age unfolds, rest assured that these five usually overlooked statements of fact will have more to do with where we end up than will all the defensive and self-justifying statements of opinion put forth by music industry players:

1) There is a difference between electronic files and physical CDs.

While there's no turning the clock back to the days when you had to buy a CD to get music, the fact remains that a physical CD is different than an electronic file. Physical CDs sound better, for those who can hear the difference. Physical CDs carry with them at least some little bit of the "album-ness" of albums that I talked about in my previous Commentary piece, and there are still people who care about that. A physical CD is just that: a physical product, which lends to it an intangible "suchness" that the electronic file lacks. To the extent that the music world has barrelled along in the '00s without much awareness of this difference does not eliminate the difference by any means; as a matter of fact, it may be setting the stage for an unexpected comeback of the physical product.

The fact also remains that a good percentage of people who still buy music still do buy CDs, naysayers and doom-and-gloomers aside. Take In Rainbows as a good, current example--of the 122,000 copies sold the first week, three-quarters were actual physical CDs. While we don't know how many of those people who bought physical CDs had also previously downloaded the music online, I'm guessing that many of them certainly did (for instance, me; I actually paid for it twice; go figure). If this isn't a de facto argument for the viability of the CD in the digital age, I don't know what is. Radiohead does happen to be a band whose fans particularly enjoy the album packaging, but there's a hint for musicians around the world: make the package part of the worth of the music.

In discussing the matter, people seem constantly to talk as if the anticipated future of nobody buying CDs at all is already here. There are two things blatantly wrong with that: first, that future isn't here yet, by a long shot; second, there is little if any guarantee that this anticipated future is the future that's in store for us. People glibly act as if a downward trend must therefore be downward to zero eventually. So if three-quarters of people buying music now buy CDs, this means eventually nobody will. Rarely is anything so cut and dried; rarely if ever do trends go all the way down. As a matter of fact, judging by the track record of those who predict what the future holds for us, from a consumer products point of view, I'd say that there's overwhelming evidence to suggest that anticipated futures such as "no one will buy CDs anymore" are the ones that never arrive.

For the time being, I would suggest that musicians draw a sharp distinction between their electronic files and the physical product. The more interesting, instructive, and intrinsic to the music itself the CD package is, the clearer the distinction between the electronic file and the physical product will be.

I think this inability to make the distinction--crucial to the success of the In Rainbows experiment--between music as electronic file and music as physical product is what keeps so many musicians stubbornly unwilling to offer a free and legal MP3 or two from every album they make. I am continually amazed by the number of independent artists I encounter who won't do this. It seems that they think they're protecting their work but in reality they're just protecting their egos, not to mention shooting themselves in the foot. The Radiohead experiment shows at a massive level the promotional value of offering songs, legally, online, that people don't necessarily have to pay for. This is not the same as offering free CDs and never will be.

2) Like it or not, when music exists electronically rather than just physically, the rules must change.

I'm not saying it's a great thing that people have gotten used to having a lot of free music in the digital age; lord knows Fingertips exists because I feel strongly about not pirating music willy-nilly just because one can. On the other hand, I don't believe in sticking my head in the sand about this either. Digital reality has changed many many things. Look at how strange, for instance, software is: it's a product that a company sells, and yet it is entirely and effortlessly replicatable. If you buy a flat-screen TV, you can't make a quick copy of it at home, and then send it to your friends via the internet.

Because software was by its nature digital from the outset (duh), the software industry has by and large figured out how to deal with this, although it's been its own sort of bumpy ride. (Should software be subject to copyright or patent, or both? Should software simply be free?: there are any number of people out there who do in fact believe that.) Those products that used to exist non-digitally but have since been digitized--pictures, music, film--are the ones in which the new digital reality causes the most upheaval. As we will continue to see.

3) In the digital world, something can have value and still be free.

This is the sticky wicket many old-model music people have trouble with. Label people and independent musicians alike are known to fume about how "music has value" and that anyone giving it away is undermining the idea that music is actually worth something. The Times, for instance, quoted one technology investor as saying that the Radiohead experiment "shows pretty conclusively that the majority of music consumers feel that digital recorded music should be free and is not worth paying for."

This argument--and a rather overstated argument in this case--overlooks the reality that the very people who are often taking music for free do nevertheless value their music a lot. What the bean counters of the world don't understand is that these music lovers have detached the idea of financial value from inner-worth-value. That is, they don't feel inclined to back up their sense of music's value to them with cold hard cash.

I don't think this has to do with the inherent evil of 21st-century humankind. I think it's actually a somewhat sensible response to the aforementioned change associated with the digital world.

Back when a song had to exist on a physical piece of vinyl, there were literally only so many copies of the song "XYZ" in the world: they could be stacked and counted as they were produced, and each could be given a particular price, a particular financial value. Now, the song "XYZ" is transportable invisibly, and can multiply incessantly. It makes no sense to try to apply the old idea of value to such a product.

I think this is what people are responding to, unconsciously, when they seemingly "steal" music--why people who would never go into a store and pilfer a physical CD have no qualms about going online and downloading music for free, whether it was being officially made available for free or not. I am not saying this to justify piracy, which I still ardently oppose. I still don't think MP3 blogs should be posting songs that have not been made available legally (and the vast majority of them do, alas). But I do understand why we've gotten to where we've gotten.

4) Digital content is not by and large seen as having financial worth

This is another tough nut to swallow, I know. But look: the overwhelming majority of web sites that actually make money do so either by selling concrete, non-digital things or by selling advertising based on the number of people visiting the site. There is very little money in digital content, except in the most specialized areas.

As a writer, I saw the proverbial writing on the wall on the matter pretty early--it was 1997 or so when I began to notice, to my chagrin, that the same writing I used to be paid to do in physical magazines was worth nothing or next to nothing online. Print magazines paid nothing extra for putting their copy--my writing--online; and web-only publications paid embarrassingly little, if not literally nothing at all, for the words with which they filled their screens. I spent a little time bemoaning my fate; I spent a lot more time adjusting my approach to the business. (In the long run, I used it as a convenient reason to stop doing the sort of freelance writing I had been doing, which I realized I didn't even like in the first place.)

If there is one way to sell digital content for money, it's going to have something to do with how iTunes has managed. Let's ignore for the moment everything wrong with iTunes regarding its proprietary technology and its artist-unfriendly relationships with the major labels, and let's look simply at the fact that Apple has convinced millions and millions of people to pay for music online. (Hell, they even convinced a whopping number of people this last week to buy, via iTunes, for $9.99, the very album they could have bought via Radiohead for any price they wanted.) They've done so with a combination of low perceived cost (just 99 cents a tune; much less than $1.00, right?) and that Apple-oriented magic of the iTunes "store" feeling like a spiffy place to go and look around. They've done the more-difficult-than-it-looks job of organizing millions of items in a way that seems friendly and accessible.

And it was positively brilliant of them to link the online store to the iTunes player, so it doesn't even feel like you're on the web when you're buying stuff--you're in some Twilight Zone-ish place that's neither online nor offline. The buying procedure, once you've registered, is credit card free and seamless. The whole experience feels entirely unlike a web-based transaction--which at least partially removes our built-in resistance, otherwise, to buying digital content online.

5) The digital age isn't just about online music distribution; it's about low barrier to entry. This changes the market just as much, if not more, than the existence of MP3s.

The 21st century has brought with it an unprecedented ability for a musician to record and distribute his or her music to the great wide world. There are way way (way) more people doing this than there were 15 or 20 years ago.

The total amount of money spent on music could be going up healthily every year (and it may well be, if you consider indirect spending on things like technology on which to play music) and it still couldn't possibly assure a living for everyone out there with a musician shingle up. The idea that in the future musicians will make money from touring but not CDs--a highly unlikely circumstance that has nonetheless achieved meme-like status in discussions like these--is severely undermined by the reality of just how many bands and musicians are theoretically going to be out there touring. Where on earth is all the money coming from to support all these tours? There just aren't enough people interested in going to concerts night after night after night. Supply has outstripped demand--it's really as simple as that.

Never mind the fact that moving forward in our climate-changed world, there's going to have to be a lot less touring, not more touring. And--sorry to say to the hundreds of thousands (literally!) of bands haunting MySpace, looking for a big break--there are going to have be fewer bands. A lot fewer. Or--this is the only option, although not a pretty one--they are going to have to be okay not making any money from their music.

Call me elitist (and idealistic to boot!), but I don't think the really really talented folks get completely screwed too often. Choose the hoary aphorism of your liking--the cream rises to the top, talent will out, etc. By and large, I believe it. That doesn't mean the talented people don't have to work really really hard to make ends meet sometimes. Very few musicians get success handed to them on a silver platter.

On the flip side of this assertion, there are a whole lot of bands out there that don't need to exist, judging by aesthetic standards, and if they fade away, or if they must make music on the side of their "real" lives, I don't see the harm in it.

That's one of problems I encounter when people complain about musicians "needing" to be able earn money from their music. Somehow quality squirts away from the conversation. No one presumes that an inept plumber "deserves" to make his living fixing pipes, but somehow with music, people get all touchy about the artist's right to exist and be paid and forget about the audience's right not to support uninteresting, mediocre music.

The hard truth is most of the music being made out there isn't really worth a lot of money. Music is not an inherently financial endeavor. I admire anyone who tries to make a living as a musician, but the mere fact that someone wants to try by no means guarantees that his or her music is of high enough quality to garner financial support.

And the fact that 21st-century technology has allowed the number of people trying to do this to mushroom as never before means that from here on in, it's only going to be harder, not easier, to find a living in this arena.

To believe that this living is being compromised by a band such as Radiohead allowing people to download their music files for a price of their choosing--or a band such as the Charlatans, who having begun releasing their next CD via free and legal MP3s online--is benighted. The enemy is not the internet, and the enemy is not any band trying to have a real relationship with digital music distribution.

The real enemy--as always--is something that lives inside of each of us, something that perpetuates insecurity and fear and then believes that other people, places, and things are at the root of this insecurity and fear. One outside-of-the-box way to look at the situation is this: the digital age in music is giving many people an incredible opportunity to confront themselves. Those who do so, successfully, will, like Radiohead, have the most interesting stories to tell in the years to come, and may produce some really great music in the process. And I for one will gladly pay for it.

No comments: