Thursday, April 23, 2009

Music is not like water (Fingertips Commentary)

There's a new Fingertips Commentary piece on the main site, called "Music is not like water (but it's sure starting to remind me of a flying car)." Subtitle: "Pundits and entrepreneurs push futuristic schemes as if inevitable; damn reality and full speed ahead!"

It's on long side (oops) so I'm breaking it into two parts for the blog. I'll post the second part tomorrow. The essay is the same here as on the main site, except there are a handful of footnotes accompanying the piece on the Fingertips site, which flesh out the subject at hand.

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No longer up in the sky, today's flying cars are zooming with unbridled speed and zaniness around the internet.

You may have heard about those flying cars, the ones that people in the 1950s were convinced everyone would be driving (flying) around in by the 1960s or maybe the 1980s and certainly by the very futuristic year of 2000 (now, bizarrely, in the nostalgia-inducing past).

Well, it turns out every generation gets its own version of flying cars--a certain-sounding vision of future technology based on a vigorously embraced present technology, which passing time eventually reveals to be both laughable and impossible. At the end of the 21st century's first decade, the internet seems particularly susceptible to the flying car syndrome, with all sorts of zippy schemes gaining traction within our net-addled culture.

With the music industry in conspicuous disarray, it's no surprise to see flying cars promised as inexorable destiny. There are three particular models of flying car most prominently advertised these days by the music industry's loudest and most insistent hucksters. These are:

1) The "Free Music" model, with its one big, simple feature: in the future, no one will have to pay for recorded music at all

2) The "Access" model, which still involves paying for recorded music, albeit indirectly (through some sort of fee or another); what disappears in this model is ownership (i.e. you pay to listen but you don't actually hold on to any physical recording of any kind)

3) The "Music-Like-Water" model, another indirect payment concept, hawks the idea that in the future, music will be subscribed to, and paid for monthly, like a utility bill

As you continue to read about such things both here and in other places, remember one thing: I never got my flying car, and neither did you.

The Free Music model's most vocal salesman thus far seems to be Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch, and columnist for the Washington Post. He has such unshaking belief in his own analysis that he states over and over again, as if fact, that the price of music will "inevitably" fall to zero because, as he says, "Marginal production costs are zero" (see here for a relatively early example).

"Arguing against basic economics makes about as much sense as arguing against gravity," he likes to say.

As Tina Fey likes to say: "What the what?"

Mr. Arrington's bluster aside, I'm pretty sure that most if not all of the world's sharpest economic thinkers would avoid comparing economic theory--a human construct, which attempts to codify what is at root the irrational behavior of human beings--to gravity, which when last I checked is an actual physical law, rooted in immutable physical circumstances.

When last I checked as well, economic theory, while adept at providing a framework for humankind's basic economic activities, is not a Ouija Board or a Magic Eightball--it does not claim special powers of prognostication, especially within highly complex and indelibly subjective arenas such as the creation and production of music. Economic theories that apply in the realm of commodity products such as soybeans or crude oil cannot possibly work smoothly or predictably when the "product" is something as individual and varying as a song or composition.

Truth be told, the Free Music model is as nonsensical as Hiller's Aerial Sedan (see charming picture above), and for the relatively similar reason that it overvalues theoretical thinking at the expense of everyday human reality.

Flying cars might be theoretically possible but they are empirically impossible. The typical automobile driver could never be skilled and attentive enough to be a pilot, not to mention a mechanic (the machine would have to be thoroughly checked and inspected before every trip, no matter how short). If you are a not especially skilled or attentive driver, you can still, pretty often, drive to the store. Put the vehicle in the sky--without clearly defined roadways, signs, signals, and so forth--and that same level of skill will quickly kill you, your passengers, and people unfortunate enough to be below you on the ground at the time. And there's no pulling over to the shoulder if your engine suddenly has trouble.

Flying car proponents never seemed to think about this, just as today's free music proponents do not think about the mundane but very real barriers to the no-cost nirvana they are convinced is around the corner.

To reduce the music industry's economic circumstances to the simple idea that "marginal production costs are zero" is rhetorical sleight of hand. What about the cost of the original production--the cost of actually recording the music in the first place? Despite the capacities that today's technology gives musicians to record on their own, most serious musicians still want and need a professional recording studio, which doesn't come cheaply. And what about the cost of all the time involved in rehearsing? What about the labor cost of the songwriter? No one imagines a lawyer or investment banker toiling for hours or weeks on end without a fee. Isn't the effort involved in producing the song worth real money?

Of course it is--if, that is, the end result is in fact of value. And this is what complicates the music discussion, to be sure. There is an overabundance of music being written and recorded in the 21st century that has no value to anyone but the person or people making it and (perhaps) their families and friends. It's misleading and distracting to pretend that music recorded on a laptop by your cousin's roommate's ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, when they were drunk, can and should be governed by the same economics as music produced by Neko Case or Radiohead or Grizzly Bear or (name the biggest hottest buzz band of the moment).

There is, therefore, a lot of music available today that really can and should and has to be free, if precisely because it doesn't have value to a wider audience. But this does not lead to the idea that all music can or should or has to be free. Marginal production costs be damned; human beings have, since the dawn of currency itself, understood that to own something of value requires a commensurate payment. To pretend that techonological trickery has changed that basic relationship is to believe in flying cars.

Saying to a band that has created and recorded a worthy song, "Sorry, but because technology now lets me take your song home so easily, I don't have to pay for it" is morally outrageous. To add, further, that economic theory not only demands but justifies this circumstance is to be both outlaw and fool.

Relying on economic theory to explain this deep and knotty subject is like relying on dermatology to understand a human being. The writers and commentators who dive into deep economic analysis expect us to nod our heads and accept their very serious authority on the matter but let's get a grip here. The economy may often dominate our lives, but economics neither rules nor governs our living breathing time on earth. Economic theory doesn't even specifically predict economic events like booms and recessions, never mind the fate of a multifaceted activity like the creation and enjoyment of music.

Just because it's become trickier to figure out how to charge for music doesn't mean that worthy musicians are somehow fated not to be able to sell it. The ideas that have been discussed as ways to offset the disappearance of revenue generated directly by songs and albums--bands will earn money via merchandise and touring, basically--are flimsy and awkward at best, and collapse under realistic examination. Where, for instance, does this leave artists who are not by and large touring artists, either by choice or necessity? What about the fact that consumers can far less afford regular concert tickets than regular album or song purchases?

As for the idea that musicians suddenly have to come up with other things to sell besides music, well, we are yet again zooming around in flying-car airspace. Musicians make music, and the best ones earn their living from that very music. Music fans like listening to music and don't necessarily want or need a lot of extra stuff that isn't music from the musicians they enjoy. To believe in some jerry-rigged scheme by which musicians learn to not be musicians in order to be musicians, to believe that the music industry will subsist on marketing gimmickry alone, is as absurd as believing that car companies could build reliable flying machines and that average citizens could pilot and maintain them.

And to presume that you know exactly where the future is going based on extrapolating from current conditions is likewise to believe in flying cars. "I'm simply stating the inevitable, not what's right or wrong," says Arrington. He knows people get upset by how unfair his idea of free music can seem, and heads straight to the gravity analogy for the coup de grace. Gravity "may not be fair, either," he has written, "but it's inevitable."

When all else fails in a time of upheaval and transition, you can't go too far wrong by noticing who thinks they know exactly what's going to happen and pretty much ignoring them. I have no idea where all this is going, but I know more than someone who already insists they know where all this is going. The Free Music model--in part because of the certainty of its adherents--is a lemon.

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Tune in tomorrow for part two, in which the other two "models" are discussed, and conclusions (or not) are reached.

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