I was reading this entry in Robert Scoble’s blog the other day. He was talking about the next big thing, and how it’s about content creation, and sharing with friends and family: “We want to share our lives with our video camcorders and our digital cameras.”
And I think he really pinpointed the problem with the current methods of buying music online. Of course, he wasn’t actually talking about music, or buying that or anything else online. But when you talk about sharing content online, you can’t ignore music sharing, and I think he’s gotten to the heart of why music sharing was what caused your little sister and my mother to become criminals and, more amazingly, figure out the technology, once that technology was available.
Sure, one part of it was that people want something for nothing, and another part of it was that people liked the idea of getting music online, one song at a time, and no one had stepped up and offered an easy way for people to purchase music that way, but I think there was a lot more to it than that.
And I think that other reason is why people are so disgruntled with the current legal methods for buying music online. I’ve tried it; my friends have tried it; strangers I read on the Internet have tried it; hell, even slashdotters have tried it. But most people I’ve talked to and read are unsatisfied. I can’t buy a song at work and then move that song to my home computer if I buy the song through Music Now. I can’t convert a song to .mp3 if I buy it through Music Match. Also, I can only burn songs I bought there though their program. I can’t find any songs I like on emusic, but that’s a whole other problem. What if I have to reinstall Windows? What if I buy a new computer? What if my portable music player only plays mp3s? What if I want to burn my music using a different program that I like better?
I understand that the record labels are selling a product, and they want to be compensated for it. I’m not advocating theft. But what the record companies don’t seem to understand is that they’re not just selling a disposable item. They’re selling art, culture, an experience. If not for those things, people wouldn’t buy music at all. After all, songs only stay on the charts for a few weeks. No one (well, OK, maybe Paris Hilton and that trendy girl at the mall) would buy jeans that they knew would be going out of style next month. And anyway, you can listen to music for free on the radio, on your cable TV, and on radio AOL (or one of the much cooler Internet stations out there). Why buy?
Music has always been about more than just a song. Before we had the technology available to record music, it was an experience among a group of people: people sang in church, around campfires, at barnyard dances. Stories were passed down through song. Songs evoked memories of times and places gone by.
In the 60’s and 70’s, people had record parties. They sat around in someone’s basement and listened to a record together. OK, they also might have got a little high, but mostly, it was about the music: about sharing the music. Maybe people also sat around by themselves and listened to records, but it wasn’t the same. Those people were nerds.
I did the same in high school. Well, not the nerd thing, the sharing music thing. I remember going to church my sophomore year. My friends and I sat in the back and then snuck out and listened to Def Leppard’s Hysteria in my friend’s truck. Then we’d sneak back in before the service was over and our parents never knew we were gone. Even now, when I hear songs from that album, I think about sitting in that truck, heater cranked up, talking about our lives.
My senior year, if we’d get to school early in the winter, we’d pile into someone’s car and listen to music until the bell rang. Even before that, in junior high, we would take our boombox out into the soccer field at lunch and eat while we listened to the top five at noon on the local radio station. We’d make guesses on what would be number one.
Songs evoke memories of days gone by. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ first two albums bring me back to mud bogging in the woods, yelling as loud as I could, holding on to a boy. Billy Joel’s Glass Houses album reminds me of road trips to LA with my cute and charming, but unfaithful boyfriend my senior year. And inexplicably, Cher’s “Just Like Jesse James” makes me think of driving past the prison on the way to Paso Robles with my college boyfriend.
Not many songs remind me of things I’ve done alone.
Concerts are a shared musical experience as well. It’s just not the same to go to a concert alone. And when you’re there, part of the joy is experiencing the music with everyone around you.
But what about file sharing?
The wide availability of cassette tapes brought copying music to the masses. Not only were they a lot easier to lug around than those huge eight-tracks, but we could record onto them! And we did. “The consumer’s demand for blank tape used for personal music-recording was unanticipated by Philips.” Not to get out of paying for music, but to share the experience of music. I was introduced to music I would have never heard of had it not been for mix tapes.
I was fairly sheltered musically when I was growing up, so I knew about John Denver, the Carpenters, the Bee Gees, and 80’s pop. That was about the extent of my musical knowledge until college. Except that I also had a Shirley Temple record, so I knew all the words to “The Good Ship Lollypop.” Also, in 9th grade, my parents owned an antique store and once bought a box of records at an auction. I found a record by Aretha Franklin and smuggled it home. When I was home by myself, I discovered “Respect” and “Natural Woman.”
The summer after my first year at college, I interned at a theatre company. Everyone there liked to exchange mix tapes. I discovered a whole new world: “Revolution”, “American Pie”. What were these songs? The more mix tapes I received, the more I learned about music. The more I wanted to buy music.
Mix tapes weren’t about copying whole albums and distributing them around so we could all get out of paying. They were about creating something new and sharing it. Which goes back to Robert Scoble’s blog entry (I know, you thought I completely lost my train of thought, didn’t you?): “Humans want to create things. We want to send them to our friends and family… The impulse to create is strong. The impulse to share is strong. The impulse to consume is strong.” That’s what music means to people. It’s not just a disposable item we buy, use, and discard. It’s a building block for creating our own experiences and sharing them.
This isn’t an apologistic attempt to justify illegal file swapping. It’s an attempt to explain why we buy music in the first place. People originally downloaded music online illegally, not because it was free, but because it was easy. And it enabled us to use the new cassette tape (the writable CD) to continue creating mixes to share. And if the record labels really want to be able to sell their music online, they’ll sell not just the song, but the ability to do what we’ve always owned music for: sharing with others. People want to create unique and different mixes and play them on their work computer, and their home computer, and their iPod. They want to burn CDs and play them in the car. They want to swap mixes with their friends. They want to create a poem, a mood, an experience, and they want to share it. And they want to be introduced to what they’ve never heard of from their friends. When I listen to a mix CD from a friend, it’s just like when I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, listening to that Aretha Franklin record for the first time. Why have I never heard these songs? Where can I get more?
And yes, I’ll go to the record store and buy a CD by that artist I never knew before. But I probably won’t download the songs for 99 cents each because then I won’t really own them. Because you don’t really own the music when you buy it that way, you just own the ability to hear the song. Which you can do for free by listening to the radio.