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

Yesterday I posted the first part of this essay, which is the latest Fingertips Commentary on the main site (where it comes complete with a few footnotes). Thanks to those who have already responded; I know this is a lot to read in our blog- and microblog-focused world. And actually, because it’s so long, I decided it would be best to split into three. Today, I pick up where I left off, literally: I’m repeating the last paragraph, for context. I’ll post the final segment on Monday. You can always read the whole thing, with footnotes, at any time, on the main Fingertips site.

* * *

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.

[to be continued on Monday; or, go here right now]

One thought on “Music is not like water, part two (Fingertips Commentary)”

  1. “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.”Stumbled upon … well, fell over it really … your site and hey, good for you. Nifty sounds, great content, and, thank you Lord in heaven, someone that can WRITE! Awesome! Dude … I just love where you’re coming from with this (quote above). Spot on, man. Keep it real


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