I think far too much about how to best listen to my music. It’s a fun time to be a music fan, because it seems more consumer choices spring up each week that promise bigger libraries, enhanced social features, and more ubiquitous access across devices. And always hovering in the distance is the thought that the new thing will finally be the magic feather to get digital music just right.
Lately, I’ve had a few friends ruminating on digital music. A few weeks ago, Rob Weychert did a retrospective on his first year of using the music streaming service Rdio, and Elliot Jay Stocks replied with some thoughts of his own.
Access versus ownership has been a personal fixation of mine for the past few years, and I thought it’d be good to float some revised thoughts on the matter.
The way you navigate a place of abundance (streaming music) is fundamentally different than how you use a place with limitations (purchased music). In abundance, you’re looking to discover pre-existing value, (“Knock my socks off!” or “Fuck you, impress me.”) whereas with limitations, you’re looking to milk value. (“I’ve got this thing. How can I learn to enjoy it?”)
It’s not reasonable to expect things to be the same in areas of abundance and limitation. Dating in New York City is different than doing so in Iowa. You’ll have more options in NY, but you might also have commitment issues, because there’s always the temptation to think there’s someone better out there.
Systems of abundance and limitation are not exclusive, even though we talk like they are. Digital services and technology rarely displace, but frequently add and augment. Your Twitter account didn’t replace your Facebook profile. You’re just splitting time and trying to keep both plates spinning. With digital, it is almost always AND instead of OR.
My point is that streaming and purchasing music models can live together. (You can buy MP3s off Rdio!) My best usage (so far) is to use Rdio as a preview/sampling service for the first few spins, and if I return frequently, I buy the music off iTunes. This keeps a lot of riff-raff out of my iTunes library. I have an iTunes Match account, and pay for that happily as well. I’ll also occasionally make a playlist on Rdio from the big selection, then buy the MP3s to make my own mix in Garageband to put in iTunes.
The best way forward, I think, isn’t a religious devotion to access or ownership, but trying to figure out a personal balance where they compliment each other.
Almost every time we talk about the future of music, books, and other kinds of media, we almost universally leave out discussion about how to support musicians, writers, and other creators. It’s always about the form of the experience for consumers, and very rarely an analysis of how they change business models to support the artists.
Simply put, streaming services are a good deal for consumers, but don’t leave much room to properly pay artists. Spotify pays artists less than a cent per play. (Less than a penny!)
I’m reluctant to place too much dependency on a system that isn’t sustainable.
When describing how to navigate areas of abundance, I think we need to be cautious about the language that we use. I hesitate to use terms like “opportunity cost” and others associated with commerce when it comes to choosing music, because everyone knows the primary value of music isn’t wrapped up in a way that can be described in dollars and cents. We should use commercial terms when dealing with money and discussing business models to support artists, and avoid those terms when describing the experience of enjoying the music.
I think most of the blah-blahing about MP3s versus records (or printed books vs. e-books) is a mix of honest-to-God personal preference and sheer sentimentalism. I think we all need to shut up about this, because nothing anyone writes or says is going to change any minds. Most of the drum-beating amounts to snobbery for being part of a grand tradition or arrogance for being an early adopter. Both are equally foolish things to be prideful about. Find what works for you, and be happy with it. Music is fun and nourishing. Let it be.
Update: Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 wrote a piece for Pitchfork about streaming royalties. “Pressing 1,000 singles in 1988 gave us the earning potential of more than 13 million streams in 2012.”