Music is not like water, part three (Fingertips Commentary)

On Thursday and Friday of last week I posted the first two parts of this essay, which is the latest Fingertips Commentary on the main site (where it comes complete with a few footnotes). Today, I pick up with a discussion of the third “model.” You can always read the whole thing, with footnotes, at any time, on the main Fingertips site.

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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.

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