I recently watched the fundraising/trailer/teaser for the “Unsound” movie, about the survival of musicians and creatives in the digital age:
There are two things that don’t seem to be mentioned in this video: one is that we can listen to music “on demand”, in radio-like quality, on video and audio streaming sites any time nowadays.
[UPDATE: David Byrne just wrote an excellent article about Spotify that goes along these observations – why pay when you can stream?]
In the past, when we wanted to just listen to a song (ie. not buy the record), we had to be in front of the radio when it was aired, and record the (crappy, compressed and expanded) radio quality onto (crappy) compact cassettes. If we bought the single it was far more expensive than it is buying a digital download of a single track today. And if we bought the album we probably got 2-3 likeable songs, with the rest being “meh” and/or “fillers” (depending on one’s taste and degree of devotional fandom;-).
Today however, we can a) listen to music whenever we want to, for free (YouTube, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Vimeo etc.), and if we really like a song, we can b) buy just that one song through iTunes, Amazon, etc. – and most often, that’s a 99 cent sale, instead of a $12-$15 sale for an album. But the musicians still produced the entire album. And no one is recording music onto compact cassettes in front of the radio anymore.
Looking at it that way, I think that YouTube is actually the single worst offender. I can’t understand why musicians and labels are watching and letting it happen that people upload entire albums, and YouTube does nothing about it, even though it’s a crystal clear copyright infringement. Is getting paid fractions of a cent per play really lucrative?! Also, there’s a plethora of “YouTube to MP3” download services/apps – because for an awful lot of people, the radio-like YouTube quality is enough as long as they can get the music for free.
[Addition: what’s most upsetting on YT are the “music lovers” that comment “thanks for posting this” to uploads of entire albums. Albums that they could buy in near mint condition through the discogs.com marketplace for $7 plus shipping. If those people were actually music lovers that cared, they’d perhaps leave a comment like “why are you posting this?!” instead.]
But there’s more, and that’s the other thing that has changed: music doesn’t “age” anymore, with regards to the recording/playback medium. Compact cassettes, tapes, vinyl records, even CDs (if you expose them to UV light long enough, scratch them badly, etc.) – all physical records age, and their quality deteriorates. After a while, listening to music from such a medium was just no joy anymore. Compact cassettes were the worst, probably because the way that we treated them: stored in the car, in a temperature range from “freezing” to “baking”, rewound, fast forwarded, flipped, etc. etc. – or thing of the mobile players (“aka” Walkman).
Today? A digital download lasts forever. A file will remain perfect (in the case of lossless audio like FLAC, even bit-perfect), no matter how many times you play it, and no matter what you do with it. The worst that can happen is a catastrophic hard disk failure, and for that, we usually have backups, or convenient services like “auto rip” from Amazon, the “best quality match” (or whatever it is called) from Apple in iTunes, the “access on every device” from Google, and so on.
What’s more: copying doesn’t degrade the quality, either! Again, back in the days, when I was a pupil or student and couldn’t afford to buy all records that I wanted – we made (legal) private copies, from vinyl and CD to compact cassettes. A copy of a copy would sound rather crappy already, and a copy of a copy of a copy… just forget it. It was horrible.
And I used to throw away worn compact cassettes. Vinyl records would break, or if you forgot them in the sun, get wavy and bent beyond being playable. I would “lose” some music and renew it with different music, but today I have so much music on my hard disk, and so much music is available absolutely for free that I do not feel the “urge” to buy a certain record (album) or even single track anymore.
I don’t have a solution. DRM could be used to limit the time a song can be played, but that ship has sailed because of the different formats that the big players tried to push and establish. There was no leading DRM format, and the winner was the DRM-free MP3 format (a pity that not even Ogg Vorbis made it – how stupid can content providers be to ignore an open and royalty free format?!).
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like DRM. I actually don’t like digital downloads either. I still prefer physical releases (but digital downloads allow me to choose based on how much I value a certain recording). It’s just that, right now, if we accept the old limitations (inferior, radio like quality), we can access everything that we want for free, and if we buy digital, it will last forever, it can be spread and copied forever, and as the “Unsound” trailer shows, that’s not a good thing…