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posted 23 Apr 09     

Music is not like water

but it's sure starting to remind me
of a flying car.

Pundits and entrepreneurs push
futuristic schemes as if inevitable;
damn reality and full speed ahead!

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.

The other two models--Access and Music-Like-Water--still presume that people will be paying for music, so at least there's that. The payment in both cases is indirect--not song by song or album by album, in other words. The Access model focuses on a future in which no one will own music, but will merely access it from central databases; payment ideas vary from free and ad-supported to fees of various sorts. The M-L-W model is also based on a central repository, but prefers to focus on the payment concept, which is envisioned as a small monthly fee, with the music being positioned as something that flows easily and reliably into your house, like water or electricity.

And please understand that I am generalizing to bring two basic ideas into focus. It's difficult because everything's really murky; everything's really murky because no one really knows what's going on. No one really knows what's going on because we are in a time of serious upheaval and transition. We're not supposed to know what's going on.

So I don't want to get lost in a lot of unnecessary specifics. Staying with some basic points will be enough to explain why these two, too, are elaborate, fanciful, unrealistic, and never-to-be-realized--flying cars all the way.

The Access model got a big push this year via the success of Spotify in Europe. Spotify offers unlimited access to streaming music, with three options: free acess, interrupted occasionally by commercials, or two types of paying options (a day pass or a monthly fee). It's kind of like a really really cool and responsive radio. To believe that this abruptly replaces ownership for enough listeners for ownership no longer to be necessary is to be drinking the Kool-Aid of those investing in music streaming services.

I discussed the basic idea of access versus ownership, independent of Spotify, in a footnote to my January Commentary piece. My irritation with the idea then remains my irritation with the idea now: the concept that no one would want or need to own the music they like to listen to makes sense as a theoretical extrapolation from today's unsettled music scene but lacks resonance with human reality.

To begin with, there are undiscussed logistical obstacles. If you don't own a physical copy of the music you want to listen to, you have to be near your computer to hear it, or you have to own the right kind of device that will give you portable access to the music. Theoretically such things will be developed, but then again, given the hornet's nest of rights considerations involved, who knows what sort of device it will be and whether it will be as comfortable and flexible to use as the iPod (a device which, remember, is based on the idea of music ownership).

Another logistical concern: if the music isn't on your computer, what happens when the web site freezes up, or the network goes down? What happens when there's a blackout? Is your music something you want to hand over to the vagaries of network connection? This may sound like a small point but there are generations of music listeners previous to the current one who would feel unmoored and ill at ease knowing that their favorite music might disappear on them randomly, capriciously.

The idea of having to talk to tech support to get my music back is horrifying, at least to me.

A larger logistical concern: however many songs a service like this might make available, will it have all of your favorite songs and artists? The bigger a music fan you are, the likelier the answer will be no. If not, does that mean you'll never hear these songs anymore? Or when you want to hear them, you have to dig out your antiquated CD player?

Or: what if a song you love disappears from the basic repository at some point, because of some rights issue, a bureaucratic problem of some kind, or for no particular reason at all? Previously, if you happen to lose an album of yours somehow, you could replace it. If you've handed the reigns of your music collection over to a third party, you never know what's going to happen.

Music is a very individual and individualized experience. On the one hand, the reality of digital music has promoted this idea; one of the abiding images of our age is the earbudded music listener strutting along, entranced by his or her playlist. But now the Access model wants to take our personal, idiosyncratic, individually meaningful music and park it all in a central garage, stripped of personal association.

How would it feel if you didn't get to own your own clothing? If you could wear whatever (mostly) you wanted, but you didn't get to keep your shirts and pants and sweaters and accessories in your own closet? Everything went back to the store everyday, nothing hung around your house as your own. Even if the process were automated, if the clothes arrived and departed without any effort on your part, even if there were new conveniences like not having to do your laundry any longer, isn't there something missing here?

While the clothing analogy seems far-fetched in a number of ways, the fact remains that music is special stuff, tightly connected to history, memory, and personal identity. I don't think the Access model comes anywhere near taking this into account.

Now, I know that many may label my concerns as generational. I care about ownership because I grew up owning albums. I'm used to it. When Spotify got its flurry of publicity earlier in the year, much was made of this generational issue. Today's younger music listeners don't care about owning music, everyone says.

I, on the other hand, say: beware this sort of generalization. It comes in handy for people who are selling a music streaming service. But the realities of human development argue against the idea that your behavior as a teenager gets somehow etched into the unchanging stone of your eventual adulthood.

Look at me: I grew up watching 25 to 30 hours of TV a week, because that's what there was, that's all we had (and not many channels, either), and I didn't know any better. Today I watch maybe a half hour of TV a week.

Or, there's this, closer to the matter at hand: I grew up listening to vinyl albums; today, my music collection is on my computer and I listen almost exclusively to songs shuffling through my iPod. And I pretty much like it this way. Go figure.

Funny how people want to use the "they grew up with it, they'll never change" argument when it's convenient for their own vested interests. But the reality is that people are not trapped perpetually in the entertainment behavior pattern of their youth. On the contrary, behavior patterns tend to change with age. People extrapolating from research almost never take this into account. What you spend your time doing as a teenager is not what you spend your time doing when you're 30 or 35 or 40. Life intrudes, life experiences accumulate, your inner world changes, and, of course, the outer world changes, continually, in ways no one ever anticipates.

As for the model number three: with its ready-made marketing slogan and futuristic, vaguely ecological sounding premise, Music-Like-Water should make you want to run away just from the overly packaged premise of the idea. And if that doesn't do it, listening to Gerd Leonhard rhapsodize certainly might. Leonhard is the guy who basically invented this and rhapsodize is what he seems to do best.

"Once we can subscribe to music just like we subscribe to water, the music business will EXPLODE and we will enter a new ecosystem," he has written. Well, hold on right there. Say no more. This is utopian thinking and utopian thinking never (ever) works. I'm always vaguely shocked when someone comes along espousing utopian ideas (don't they realize it can't work?), and equally shocked when people believe it (don't they realize?).

While Leonhard is not off base in announcing, as many have, that the music industry's traditional setup is inadequate to the task of dealing, either technologically or logistically, with the quantity of music available in a digital world, his solution--which he calls (guess what?) "inevitable"--is, rather, impossible.

It would take far too much coordination, joint effort, legal agreement, highly capable oversight and unprecedented regulatory prowess to create a fully functioning Music-Like-Water system. And if it's not fully functioning--if there are only certain songs, certain kinds of music--it would be pointless to create. The underlying idea of M-L-W model is that everything is in the pipeline--all possible recorded music. If, instead, it only has some of the music you might be listening to--if, in other words, you'll still have to gain access to other music in other ways--then the idea fails.

Of course, I believe it fails in any case. Beyond the "utopias don't work" argument, the gaping problem with Music-Like-Water is--and this should be a "duh!" but, oddly, isn't--music is not anything like water, or gas, or electricity, or anything at all that we "happily" pay for on a monthly basis, according to Leonhard (he also mentions internet access, wireless service, and cable TV).

Water is generic. Water is a physical substance that supplies a physical need. The water that flows freely into your house is the same water that flows freely into your next-door neighbor's house. Your tap-water isn't the product of an individual imagination. Your tap-water isn't anyone's artistic expression. Your tap water doesn't feed your soul.

Gas and electricity are likewise generic commodoties that share nothing of music's attributes; to compare the so-called "consumption" of music to the more literal consumption of the products brought to our house by utility companies is specious at best.

Comparing music to technological "subscriptions" such as internet access, wireless, or cable and satellite TV is hardly any better. Internet access and wireless are impersonal, generic, technological platforms upon which a diverse variety of individual activities are undertaken, and upon which all of these activities depend. A large-scale architecture and vast technological achievement, the platform itself must be connected to any given house before anything at all can happen. It makes sense for people to pay to bring the platform into their houses if they want to engage in the activities that depend upon the platform for their existence.

Traditionally, none of this has anything to do with how songs come into the world and find their way to an audience. Songs are initially created in an intimate setting, often by just one person, or at most by a small group of people. Songs are artistic creations, not generic technology. Technology, instead, comes into play in an effort to distribute the song. To reach a large audience, the song needs to be recorded and then that recording needs to be available via some widely employed playback technology or another.

For nearly roughly 100 years, there was no need for any kind of regional or national technological architecture to make this happen. You bought your vinyl record, or your cassette, or your CD, and put it in your own individual player, and played it.

The point of confusion--and the reason the Music-Like-Water idea was even conceived--is that nowadays, of course, music is, quite often, and increasingly so, delivered via a large-scale technological platform (i.e. the internet). This does not mean, however, that music is now itself a large-scale technological platform--"music," in other words, doesn't suddenly become some meta sort of entity that we should want or need to pay for in order to listen to "songs."

As for cable or satellite TV, at first glance, one might think there's some basis for similarity that could justify the Music-Like-Water model. Via subscription TV, you can watch individual programs, each of which is valued as an individual thing and yet, lo and behold, you are by and large paying for the generic idea of cable TV, not individually for "The Daily Show," "Battlestar Galactica," or "Paula's Home Cooking." Isn't this more like M-L-W?

I say no. Both cable TV and satellite TV are, in fact, vast, generic technological platforms upon which the programming depends. The shows you watch via these platforms aren't free-floating, individually created entities that either could be enjoyed with or without large-scale entrenched technological delivery system through which you watch them. It makes sense to a consumer to pay for the overall platform, which then delivers a great variety of entertainment options.

Another big difference is the nature of the entertainment delivered via subscription TV: these are large-scale programs involved the combined and coordinated efforts of an array of technicians, directors, producers, and performers. These shows could not exist without the funding made possible (to date; who knows what the future holds) by the existence of organizations dedicated to producing such shows for subscription TV. They exist because, first, there was a tangible, physical platform in need of their being created--which, again, validates the idea of paying for the service of subscription TV itself.

Songs are much more modest and personal entities. They may take advantage, now, of the platform of the internet, but they do not exist because the internet existed and needed them to fill it up. It doesn't make sense to bunch them all together as some sort of "platform" called "music" that you then pay for generically.

Music is in fact something special, something different, something that cannot and will not be reduced to its technological delivery system. Anyone who has ever been touched by any kind of music knows this. Music is a mystery. Evolutionary scientists still can't figure out why it exists.

Interestingly, even before we've gotten anywhere near the fulfillment of the M-L-W model (and not that we're going to), Bono was recently quoted as saying, "Music has become tap water, a utility, where for me it's a sacred thing."

And there you have it: music is a sacred thing. This is nothing, perhaps, that the people with the spreadsheets will understand, but music is not something the flows through my house like electricity that I turn on and off as needed. Music is personal, music has emotional and spiritual resonance. The M-L-W model may, in theory anyway, take good care of rights holders (underline "in theory anyway"), but it takes poor care of the souls of either the artists or the audience.

Do songwriters and performers think of their songs as something that flows generically into someone's life, interchangeably with the song they just listened to and the one they're about to listen to? Do people create music because it's this generic thing called MUSIC or do they create because they are trying to express something from their individual centers, and ache to share that with other individuals?

From the audience's point of view, I can imagine there may well be people who treat music relatively generically. They like to "have something on," but don't listen too carefully. In that case, M-L-W is probably harmless. But for anyone who has been touched by music in a way you can't even begin to explain, the idea that music is "like water" is laughably off base, a ludicrous, impossible conception. A flying car.

Me, I can't pretend to know the exact way out of this moment of upheaval in the music industry. We can't uninvent digital music files, and I wouldn't want to. And I'm completely on board with the idea that some music can and should be free, for promotional reasons (see the Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto for details).

There is no reason to presume that because some music should be free, all music should be free. And there is even less reason for anyone to look at the chaotic state of things right now and believe with zealous certainty that they know what the future holds. No one ever knows this, especially when it comes to technology.

Did the zealous futurists of the '80s predict the web? Or the ubiquity and various uses of cell phones? Did their counterparts in the '90s predict the iPod, or Facebook? Speaking of something as "inevitable" just because you believe it is intellectual bullying. But another thing you learn if you stop looking at formulas and start understanding human history is that the bullies never win in the long run.

Of course, the mainstream music industry itself has been quite the bully over the years, which is why few are shedding tears that it is being pretty much eviscerated by the onset of the digital music age. With the presence of so many bullies on both sides of the fence, lord knows where everything will settle down. Historically this sort of technological upheaval typically requires a full generation or so to find some stasis.

In the meantime, the one minor suggestion I could make is that music right now should be getting cheaper, not more expensive. Online albums should be $4 or $5, not $8 or $9; songs should be 49 cents or 59 cents, not 99 cents (and certainly not $1.29).

Part of the problem is that the industry by and large seems to be believing the bullies on the other side, and digging in its heels as a result. "Music will not be free!" it insists, and then does the stupidest thing possible in response, which is raise prices. The elegant way to fight the free meme would be to lower prices, dramatically. Lowering prices isn't "capitulating" to the "inevitable" price point of zero, it's adjusting to new market realities, while greatly increasing your customer base. (Trust me: lowering prices like this would greatly increase the customer base.)

Meanwhile, as the flying car crazies duke it out with the record industry hooligans, some interesting things are happening. Just this month the band Metric put out an album on their own, without a record company, and have found a supportive audience for it. This offers a glimmer of hope on two fronts. First, it's not just big names like Radiohead and Trent Reznor that can do this, it seems. A group with a more modest following can also harness the internet for a label-free release.

Second, people really can and will pay for music under the right circumstances. People will buy albums that they can own. It's 2009 and this is still happening. If you on the other hand feel no need whatsoever either to pay for or own the music you're listening to maybe that's because there's no CD player in that flying car of yours.


"Got To Do What You Should: A Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto" - posted 26 Jan 09
"The Sound of a Brand New World" - posted 10 Jan 08
"The Future (or not) of the Album" - posted 2 Aug 07
"The Secret...okay, a different one" - posted 24 Mar 07
"Foulplay" - posted 16 Jul 05
"14 Arguments for the Elimination of Pop Music Critics" - posted 10 Feb 05
"Alarmed" - posted 16 Mar 04

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