Portishead, Twitter, and Resisting Digital Ideology

Portishead’s Geoff Barrow can hardly be considered a technophobe. As producer and multi-instrumentalist for the trio Portishead, Barrow has proven himself to be one of the foremost manipulators of digital sound of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Last week, however, Barrow crossed up the digerati by tweeting a series of statements about what people should and (mostly) should not expect from the band’s next album. With tongue almost but not quite planted in cheek, he wrote things such as:

There will be NO free downloads. There will be NO bonus tracks. There will be NO remixes. There will be NO hidden footage. There will be NO additional content. There will be NO corporate partners.

He did not, anywhere, say the band would not publicize the album. (Nor did he remotely specify when the album would be coming out.) He just seemed to be happily rejecting any number of PR tools and fan engagement techniques considered de rigueur by many online pundits and amateur commentators alike.

Some of these folks answered unkindly; a recurring mocking response, seen not only on Twitter but in comment sections on sites such as NME and Hypebot, was something to the effect of “There will be NO sales”—if nothing else an inaccurate retort, as Portishead has a devoted following and will have no trouble selling an album that follows a release as good as Third, their last one. Some immediately jumped to disparaging conclusions about Barrow’s age, such as the Hypebot visitor who said, “He’s lazy and old. Who cares,” or the Twitterer who said that he sounds like “a cranky old man.” Barrow is 39.

And, because “There will be NO Twitter” was also amongst his tweeted sentiments, there were those who couldn’t get past the idea that he was hypocritical by tweeting these comments. “He wrote to Twitter to say there will be no Twitter?” wrote a commenter on the Daily Swarm. “OH how contrarian. Gimme a break.”

A mere moment of reflection, however, will reveal that Twitter is of course the best place to go to tell people about your plans not to use Twitter for one reason or another. That’s not hypocrisy, it’s efficiency. Besides, he did not otherwise swear off Twitter. (In fact, just a few days later he tweeted to assure the world that his outburst never once noted that the next Portishead album is coming out any time soon, which many seemed to infer.)

If you take a second to read the whole thing (go here and scroll down to January 5) now that the heat of the moment has cooled, it’s pretty clear Barrow was having fun (“There will be NO fashion lines,” he wrote; “There will be NO tabloid pictures”). Some were clearly not amused, however—such as the Hypebot visitor who wrote, minus a certain amount of punctuation: “What a complete idiot. Portishead are an established band with a fanbase so it’s easy for them to do this He can go do one – i for one am deleting Portishead from my brain. What an arrogant tool”

While on the one hand I hesitate to legitimize spiteful and/or uninformed comments, on the other hand, until a sea change occurs in how most sites operate, such comments take an unfortunate center stage in online discussions all too often. And in this case, I think they are particularly instructive. They stand in for a general sort of combative, unreasoned attitude that has flourished not only online but in our overall culture for the better part of the last 10 years or so.

And it’s gotten kind of foolish by now, and exquisitely counterproductive.

I mean, look: the fact that a technician/musician as skilled and experienced as Geoff Barrow has found good reason to put the brakes on the Music 2.0 love—whether he even completely means it or not—should give all thoughtful people at least a little pause. “Pause” as in easing up on reactive mode.

And we might, while pausing, want to contemplate a number of pretty important questions that arise in the wake of this pretty unimportant kerfuffle. Such as:

* Since when did fan engagement efforts become an ideology, full of what must be done and what must not be done?

* What will happen if it turns out that social media is not the be-all and end-all of a musician’s existence?

* What are the chances that all the tweeting and “liking” and YouTubing and SoundClouding everyone’s been doing for the last couple of years is amounting by now to a lot of sound and fury which may, already, be signifying nothing?

* Why do fans feel so entitled to all sorts of extra goods and services from musicians when, apparently, so many of them don’t even want to pay for the music itself?

* Why do discussions of these issues so often turn vitriolic and childish?

* What if anything can we do to prevent us all from becoming ideologues rather than reasoned thinkers and commenters?

That last question is maybe the key to all of them. And who knows, maybe it’s too late—maybe we’re all ideologues by now: people bound in lockstep to ideologies rather than open to the clear-headed pursuit of reality.

Lord knows, maybe I’m one too. It’s like pod people, or the new Facebook profile: it just happens to you, you can’t stop it.

But I don’t want to be. And that’s the first step out of it, I should think. It’s okay to have ideas, it’s okay to have opinions. But check your facts. Curb your (aggressive) enthusiasm. Be open-minded. Give the other guy the benefit of the doubt. Be willing to admit you don’t know where the future is leading.

To be sure, Twitter is not a great platform for nuance or subtlety. It’s all about quips, basically. And daggers make the best points. Maybe this is why Barrow—for all his Twitterizing jollity day to day—didn’t see the platform as a meaningful part of his art. Maybe this is part of why he launched his salvo across the good ship internet. And he was no doubt unsurprised to find a few feathers ruffled in the process.

But those who felt ruffled seem by and large to have been reacting ideologically, overlooking that there might be actual reality to take into account. A perfect example is the Hypebot commenter who, in response to Barrow’s statements, wrote: “Portishead fans must be feeling really special right about now.” She was being ironic, of course; her point was that given everything Barrow said the band would not do, fans must be feeling ignored and unvalued.

It was a slick and sardonic tweet. But it was also sheer invention, disguised as knowing aside. A quick perusal of Twitter reveals that, on the contrary, Portishead fans were overwhelmingly happy with Barrow’s little outburst. Reactions included:

“Loving Geoff Barrow’s rant about the new Portishead Album.”

“Right there is why I love this band”

“Geoff Barrow is effing brilliant.”

“Geoff Barrow of Portishead is a fucking genius!!! Just US and the Music!!!”

Despite the commenter’s assertion, Portishead fans fully appreciated what he was trying to communicate with his cheeky tweets: let’s remember it’s about the music. Let’s remember that true artists are following their muses, not the whims of their “followers,” and certainly not the whims of followers who seem too often to believe they deserve everything they want right now while not seeming all that interested in actually paying anything for the privilege.

Maybe all Barrow was really doing was resisting digital ideology. Maybe that’s all any of us should be doing.

We are in the middle of a wildly interesting time in the history of music. To claim that anyone who wants to assess and discriminate when it comes to new technology is merely old and backward is to be an ideologue. To be more interested in Tweeting ridicule than examining reality is to be an ideologue.

The world has enough ideologues. What we need are more folks who remain quirky and individualistic, who seem to be using both their heads and their hearts, who resist both the pull of the mob and the illusory “logic” of the marketplace. We are dealing with music and human emotion, not coffee beans and pork bellies. More importantly, at the top of the game here, we are dealing with genuine artists, whom their fans—if real fans—have zero business directing or controlling.

Free is Not the End (a Fingertips Commentary)

(The following piece was written for an essay collection entitled Chaos We Can Stand, to be published by the music tech blog Hypebot in the coming months. Each of the essays in the collection is inspired by Clay Shirky’s recent book, Cognitive Surplus, in particular his assertion that innovators should push for “as much chaos as we can stand” in implementing new technologies. The rest should be self-explanatory.)

Towards the conclusion of his book Cognitive Surplus, social media theorist Clay Shirky argues for letting technology innovators do pretty much whatever they want, insisting that we gain in the long run as a society when these “would-be revolutionaries,” as he calls them, are not hindered by existing structures of any kind, be they economic, social, cultural, whatever.

Allowing innovators to innovate without constraint does not, however, mean that as a society we end up with chaos, or even anything like it. Shirky is simply arguing for an appropriate division of labor here: let innovators innovate, because that’s what they do. And let society at large figure out the eventual best use of the innovations, because that’s what society at large does.

Not at all a radical statement on the benefits of widespread chaos (although it’s easy to misread as such), Shirky’s words on the matter instead offer a sly but definitive argument for the crucial role non-innovators play in the diffusion of technological innovation into the wide world.

We may as well let those who would innovate try everything, he says, “because most of it will fail.” These so-called “radicals,” he notes, “won’t be able to create any more change than the members of society can imagine.”

What’s more, he adds, the innovators themselves cannot correctly predict the eventual ramifications of their own innovations, because “they have an incentive to overstate the new system’s imagined value,” and because they “lack the capacity to imagine the other uses to which the tools will be put.”

Chaos, in other words, is not an end point but a starting point. It’s a simple truth, but one almost all “would-be revolutionaries” forget.

Shirky’s words, properly read, shed interesting new light on the trouble the music industry has had over the last 10 years or so as new technology has been introduced, unleashing a fair amount of what certainly looks like chaos in its wake.

The innovators, you see, have done their work. It was not the job of those responsible for the creation of MP3 files or P2P file-sharing technology to worry about how their innovations might wreak havoc on existing business models, occupations, or tender artistic psyches.

But—here’s the news flash—it is our job to worry about all of those things, and more. It’s our job as members of society not to succumb to technologist hype or the self-serving rationales of any interest group determined to spin the technology in their direction. It’s our job to make sure we only start with chaos, not end up there.

And this is a very hard job in the 21st century, make no mistake. It’s well and good to let the innovators dream big, but it’s another thing when some of their more anarchic ideas get tossed into the interactive free-for-all/media sideshow that has come to define public discourse.

The combination of social-media-addled mobs and eyeball-crazy web sites, not to mention ratings-happy broadcast media, can make it really difficult for important and reasonable cultural considerations to be properly tended to, or even rationally discussed.

Think about how P2P file-sharing spread so rapidly, and how little most of the people sharing music that way gave any clear thought to the morality of what they were doing—as if basic human justice were somehow no longer necessary because we now had a new and very convenient toy. And think about how today, 10 or so years later, we have millions of people who appear to believe there is nothing wrong with taking, for free, something that the thing’s owner did not intend to give them for free.

And—perhaps more importantly—there are untold numbers more who, whether they think it right or wrong, feel there’s “no going back,” that there’s nothing anyone can do about the rampant sharing of music, whether for or against the wishes of those whose music it is.

But it was not, to repeat, the job of those who introduced the technologies that fueled the P2P networks to think about the chaos it might create. It is most certainly our job, however, as human beings attempting to function together, not only to think about it but to begin, slowly and steadily, to rein it in. Chaos is neither a business plan nor a way of life.

To abandon our humanity in the face of new technology, however gee-whizzy, is to forgo an important function, and to risk widespread cultural—and, even, dare I suggest, spiritual—damage.

Things have gotten particularly hairy here in the music industry because the chaos introduced by technological innovation has been joined at the hip with the powerful, atavistic force of plunder: taking for free what you can simply because you won’t get caught. Satisfying a pretty much reptilian-brain urge, P2P file-sharing became compulsive and seemingly unstoppable.

And so, over these 10 years, the technological innovation of P2P file-sharing has steadily become linked to the idea that recorded music must now be free. This is an irrational and chaotic conclusion to draw but it surely has a powerful allure.

Because the drive to perpetuate the behavior is primal and seemingly uncontrollable, freeloader defenses ultimately resemble excuses addicts give for their habit. “It’s not really stealing because nothing’s being taken,” many will say. “The music industry has screwed us all so screw them,” say others. “We’re already paying to be online; it’s not my problem that the musicians aren’t getting a cut of that,” is a particularly wily defense. Another creative rationale: “In the old days, no one paid for music anyway.”

The arguments are specious and self-serving. (For more on this, see “The Free Music Mirage,” published on Fingertips in May.)

Whatever the specific rationales habitual freeloaders use to justify their craving for taking music for free, one thing they all have in common is a blithe disregard for the cultural value of paid transactions. It’s a huge blind spot. And this is where we, as “members of society,” charged by Shirky himself with reining in the chaos, can begin to do our work, keeping our collective eye on a larger social good than can be envisioned by technological innovators.

Chaos is not easily tamed, to be sure. I suspect Shirky himself has underestimated the extent to which chaos may appeal to certain sub-groups, rendering its mischief more widespread and difficult to counteract than he implies with breezy statements like “the radicals won’t be able to create any more change than the members of society can imagine.” Our world is rather too fractured and fractious to be able to generalize about what one monolithic group called “members of society” will or will not accept in terms of innovative chaos.

But I do believe, as the dust settles on the P2P revolution, that widespread consensus can begin to be forged that will undermine the plunderfest and its perpetrators.

Understand, first, that when I speak of the value of paid transactions, I’m not talking about record company profits. These I don’t care about. No one does, except the record companies themselves, and they’ve long since lost credibility when it comes to money, thanks to their often craven history—from exploitative artist contracts to rapaciously priced CDs to support of unfair copyright guidelines to attempting to “solve” the P2P problem by suing music fans.

I’m talking instead about the interpersonal, human-level value built into the act of giving someone something of value to you in return for something of value from him or her. Typically, of course, the thing of value you hand over in exchange for some other thing is currency, as that has developed as the easiest way to negotiate such transactions on a society-wide basis.

The basic idea of “I give you this so you give me that” has been present in human marketplace transactions for thousands of years. When someone is not willing to play along, we call him a criminal. (Or a toddler, who is developmentally shy of the self-control required to participate in a marketplace.)

Without an exchange of roughly equal value occurring, a marketplace becomes a cruel power game in which one party gets what he wants while offering nothing of equal value in return. Social damage is the inevitable long-term result. That freeloaders are generally unaware of this damage does not mean it is not real, that it is not in fact piling up even as we speak.

I find it interesting that those who take digital music for free that is not being offered for free are not generally attempting to make a grander statement about capitalist society. Few if any seem to be trying to undo marketplace protocol in general, although that would, at least, make some philosophical sense. No, it’s just the digital music they want for free (and okay, maybe movies too, as bandwidth increases).

Therein lies their scam, and their shame. There’s no high ground here for them, despite their often passionate rationales. It all comes back to “take what you can if you aren’t going to get caught.”

Like the relatively young men that they tend to be, freeloaders are filled with a young man’s sense of invincibility and infallibility, jacked up by social-media amplification. No one older and wiser dares to tell such young men what to do, dares to offer a different way that is sensitive to the big picture of history, justice, and culture.

As such, it’s easy for freeloaders to overlook the inescapable wisdom in the homely cliche about there not being any so-called “free lunch.” But in a capitalist society, this is ironclad truth. There may be millions of people in their teens and 20s at this point who have taken music for free without a care in the world, but the world will eventually let them know, definitively, that there is no free lunch. Someone somewhere is paying and is going to keep paying for their taking for free what was not offered on the market for free, and the price will eventually be extracted from them, one way or another.

The payment may come via a severe reduction in the amount of recorded music that ends up being available. It may come via a severe reduction in the quality of the recorded music that is still produced. Or, most likely of all, it may come via a harmful cultural side effect no one has yet imagined or could rightfully predict.

But a negative price will surely be extracted from all of us, eventually, if we remain on a path that accepts as a given that recorded music can be taken, for free, at the will of the person who wants it.

And yet, at this point, I’m not concerned about long-term repercussions because I have faith, a la Shirky, that we will not, at the end of the day, continue on this path. At some point the lunacy of assuming recorded music can and should be free will sink in. And then, perhaps abruptly, we will look back and wonder how we could possibly have believed that music was something no one needed or wanted to pay for. We will sheepishly remember the various schemes floated, with all seriousness, about how bands (or, even, record companies) were to make their money via t-shirts and tchotchkes.

And we will look at one another with the energetic relief that no doubt gripped pioneer towns once they realized that the outlaws with guns did not represent their endless future.

But that day didn’t arrive with people simply sitting back and waiting. As noted, we have to do our job, and that job begins first and foremost with a public rejection of the freeloader mentality. (Here’s one good example: the newly launched I Buy Music dot net.)

I am not out to judge any specific individual who, for reasons that may have seemed compelling at the time, has availed himself of free music over the last decade or so. But I am here to assert that the behavior in question, taking music for free that is not offered for free, is ultimately rooted in an attitude unbecoming of a citizen. It is neither right nor fair.

That said, I also believe the new technology rather obviously requires some serious rethinking about what constitutes fair use, not to mention what constitutes a fair price. (How on earth can there be CDs at Borders in 2010 with an $18.99 price tag?) I also believe that the technology demands that all musicians and record companies offer some free songs in addition to songs that are paid for—ideally, at least one song per every new batch, whether they come in something called an “album” or not.

But just because we cannot revert to the way things used to be, and just because we must learn to change with changing times, and just because music must now be sold more cheaply than ever before, does not require us, culturally, to throw common sense and decency and dignity out the window. Rather, if Clay Shirky is to be taken at his word, we are compelled now to look at the chaos wrought by unimpeded technology and say, collectively, no. Not that, any more. Free is not the end, only the outlaw-ish, chaotic beginning.

It was a pre-rational urge that compelled the taking of music for free, and it was perhaps an understandable first reaction as we all emerged as internet newborns back in the mid- to late-’90s. That made us internet toddlers in the new century, very sure of our untamed desires and very willing to scream when we weren’t getting them met.

And yet, still, we grow. The 2010s are here. May this be the decade we navigate ourselves out of our internet childhood altogether and move in the direction of becoming digital adults. A healthy future for music, and society, depends upon it.

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.

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.

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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]

Music is not like water (Fingertips Commentary)

There’s a new Fingertips Commentary piece on the main site, called “Music is not like water (but it’s sure starting to remind me of a flying car).” Subtitle: “Pundits and entrepreneurs push futuristic schemes as if inevitable; damn reality and full speed ahead!”

It’s on long side (oops) so I’m breaking it into two parts for the blog. I’ll post the second part tomorrow. The essay is the same here as on the main site, except there are a handful of footnotes accompanying the piece on the Fingertips site, which flesh out the subject at hand.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *
Tune in tomorrow for part two, in which the other two “models” are discussed, and conclusions (or not) are reached.

A Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto (part two)

Yesterday I posted the first half of this essay, which is the latest Fingertips Commentary on the main site (where it comes complete with a few footnotes). We pick up here where we left off, literally: I’m repeating the last paragraph, for context.

* * *

So: let every album have one free and legal MP3. Other songs must be purchased; the album, if desired, must be purchased as well. If this were the industry standard, if every album had one free and legal MP3, the industry would be in better shape, and the path for future growth clearer.

Here are five reasons why:

1) Free and legal MP3s do not equal lost revenue.

Let’s begin by shredding once and for all the fantasy that every free and legal MP3 downloaded equals money the record companies aren’t receiving. That’s a patently false, self-serving assumption.

To begin with, when you offer a free and legal MP3, you invite many many experimenters, people who grab it because it’s free but would never have bought it if it weren’t free–who often would have no idea it even existed if it weren’t free. There’s no lost revenue in that at all. This would be like saying it was lost revenue every time someone heard a song on the radio but didn’t go out and buy it.

Okay, and then what? Well, they listen and decide if they like it. If they don’t, then these people would not have bought the song anyway. Again: this is not lost revenue.

If the downloader likes the song, then we get to the all-important fork in the road: he or she can then buy another song from the album (or maybe even the whole thing), or still not buy anything further. In the first case, you’ve created revenue, so, okay, phew. But then there’s that troubling second case to deal with, and this is probably one that has the labels fretting: “You mean they downloaded the song for free, they liked it, and they still aren’t giving us any money?”

Well, yeah, maybe. But it is shortsighted to see this as simply lost revenue. What you generate here instead are two important things: customer goodwill (hey! they keep giving me a free song! and they’re sometimes really good!) and technologically effective promotion. Look: this “free song” will pop up in the listener’s iPod, will make it onto playlists, will generate awareness of the artist in question. Over time, there’s still significant sales potential, especially in this day of fostering community between artists and listeners. Record companies must begin to understand the promotional value of this exposure, which leads us to point number two:

2) Free and legal MP3s are the single most valuable way to promote artists to music fans in a post-radio age.

Let’s return to the plight of our magnanimous Nonesuch friend (see yesterday’s post). So, yay, he protected every single song on a worthwhile but off-the-beaten-path album. I have to wonder: are copies of the Sam Phillips album therefore flying off the shelf? Do people think, “Well, crap, since I can’t have any free songs I better buy the whole album?” Not in 2009 they don’t think this.

The easiest and most effective way to promote an album, especially an album that is not in any case destined for million-seller (or even 100,000-seller) status, is by making a free and legal MP3 readily available. Give people a song to have, to listen to in the context of their preferred music-listening environment. Let it spread around the internet, friend to friend, blog to blog.

I find it ironic that record labels that are squeamish about letting loose free and legal MP3s had no problem for decades handing out free physical copies of their records to radio stations. Oh, well, one might say, that’s an entirely different thing. There were huge audiences at stake. Giving a free record to a big-city radio station could result in millions of dollars of sales.

True enough, at the very top end of the music market, commercially speaking. But these same record labels also had no trouble shipping copies of many albums destined for obscurity (where’s the return on that?), and no trouble shipping albums to some pretty tiny radio stations, including all those college stations with audiences that number in the dozens at any given time.

Truth be told, radio has pretty much disintegrated for the majority of recording artists. Hardly anyone gets on the radio. (Sam Phillips certainly doesn’t get on the radio, outside of a coterie of “adult alternative” stations.) And it doesn’t matter because nowadays, people’s computers and people’s iPods are, effectively, their radios. That’s where they listen to music, both old and new. And the only way record companies can get on these “stations” is–how?

You got it: by giving people a free and legal MP3 to download and play–to, essentially, “program” on their own personal station. Because, yes, in order to listen on computers or MP3 players most easily and comfortably you have to give people the song, not expect them to sit there trapped in their browser listening to a stream, or trapped on a particular web site where music is free if you watch the ads, and not sitting in front of a screen watching a video. (Am I the only one left who realizes that a video is not a song? Just curious.)

And guess what? Delivering a free and legal MP3 to all of them costs a lot less than printing CDs and shipping them out for free to hundreds of radio stations around the country. Never mind lost revenue, what about all the expense involved with that entrenched promotional technique for all those years? To the extent that it “paid off” when a handful of records hit the big-time, fine–that was then. For the music industry to move forward in the 21st century, it has to relinquish that pray-for-a-blockbuster mentality, and the marketing techniques that went along with it.

Give people one song, make it easy to download and use anywhere they want. That’s how you get your records played on these individual “radio stations.” They usually have just one listener each, but there are millions of them across the country.

3) One free and legal MP3 per album makes for easier and less confrontational policing.

For starters, if there is automatically going to be one free and legal MP3 from every album, right away you’ll have fewer bloggers posting illegally distributed tracks. I’m guessing many will be happy to stick with the legal one, particularly if approached reasonably; right now, for far too many albums, and for pretty much every major-label album, they don’t even have this choice.

Second, when labels set about policing things online, they can use an approach which is kinder and gentler and thus much more likely to move future music-sharing behavior in a more legally-oriented direction. “The track you have been sharing is not legally available for free online distribution,” the email can state. “However, were you aware that the song ‘Free and Legal,’ from the same album, is in fact available for free online distribution? Here’s the link.”

Or whatever. The point is, with one sanctioned free and legal song from every album, the record industry will finally be closer to being on the same page as 21st-century music fans. Record labels will effectively be entering their world rather than creating phony and pointless and old-fashioned barricades.

This strikes me as a more important issue than anyone seems to bother to realize. Thanks in large part to its well-known campaign to sue people who were illegally downloading their songs, the major record companies spent the better part of the current decade in open conflict with their own customers and potential customers. As a believer from the outset in free and legal MP3s, I obviously have no sympathy for those who have chosen to download a lot of music illegally, but I also have no patience for record companies who choose only to see that behavior as reprehensible rather than try to understand the context and work to find a middle ground.

After all, the record companies, from the outset, could have combatted illegal downloading with this idea: “Hey! Do legal free downloading instead!” But they chose instead to see this as a war and to see their customers and potential customers as enemies. Not real smart in the long run.

I would also, by the way, have no sympathy with bloggers who, in a world in which there is a free and legal MP3 available from each album, would continue to post songs that are not freely and legally distributed. Bloggers are perfectly entitled to tell the world what songs they like; they are not entitled to decide on their own what songs to make available for public consumption. This is a freedom that many presumed to take from the outset, but this freedom continues to have no basis in fairness or legality.

4) If you have to give away one good song this means you must, in theory, put out albums with more than one good song on them.

Needless to say, this would be another excellent outreach strategy for a bedraggled industry.

Although I can offer no direct evidence of this theory, I am pretty sure that there exists in the music industry an additional resistance to free and legal MP3s that has to do with the suspicion that if a music listener gets one good song for free, they won’t buy the rest of the album. (After all, why else would Mr. Nonesuch be so resistant to releasing one Sam Phillips song?) To the extent that this is true, I’d say that music listeners have been well-trained over the years by their experience with albums that have only one good song on them in the first place.

As long as giving away one good free and legal MP3 from an album is the equivalent of giving away the store, as it were–because it is in fact the only good song–then, yes, this is a legitimate concern. There is one pretty straightforward solution to this, however: make sure the albums you’re releasing are actually good. The days of fooling people into buying a whole album based on hearing one good song really have to be over if the Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto is to be effective. Surely we don’t need so many albums anyway, as fewer people appear to be interested in buying them in the first place.

Note that this does not mean there will be no more albums. Can we finally agree to put an end to this black-and-white, all-or-nothing, sound-bite-oriented world view? If albums are going through a less-popular phase this hardly warrants the idea that no one wants to record them or listen to them henceforth and forevermore.

5) The music industry herein has a newborn opportunity to affirm the value of what it is selling.

Okay, so stick with me here, because I know that lots of people still think that handing out free digital music undermines the idea that music has value. To begin with, songs have become mere files, and files are eminently and endlessly copyable and distributable; add to that free distribution and where’s the value? Where’s the possibility that people will pay for it?

And the record companies themselves have gotten so spun around and bamboozled by the fledgling century’s digital realities that here they are, after years of complaining that giving away free music compromises the idea that music has value, lining up to experiment with the idea of giving unlimited access to music on streaming sites via a minor or bundled fee–something, ideally, that the end user won’t even notice or realize he or she is paying.

Talk about devaluing music! Treating music as a utility, like electricity or water, inherently devalues the artistry and effort of any individual artist, the subjective worth of any given song. But the industry seriously considers this idea now because, well, it’s desperate, like an addict whose supply has pretty much run out. It’ll try anything to get its mojo back.

Returning to the spirit of the Inaugural Address, I’d like to suggest that the industry seek not the pipedream fix but seek instead the true opportunity in this long-standing crisis brought on by digital distribution. What that opportunity may be is nothing less than the full embrace of what it has to offer us.

I mean, think of it: here are companies selling one of humankind’s most profound creations: song! Often grouped into album! And for decades upon decades now, these same companies have largely sought to treat their products as just that–mere products. (Or, in true industry parlance, the singular: “product.”) But these aren’t screwdrivers and frozen pizzas that are being sold. This is music. The word itself has magic in it. When something is music to your ears, it’s wonderful, delightful, perfect. When you have to face the music, you’re dealing with something significant, serious, not to be ignored.

I know that many many musicians have been waiting, without hope or encouragement, for record companies to understand the inherently special nature of their offerings, waiting for the suits and the bean counters to take into account the personal, aesthetic, subjective, and artistic aspects of their so-called products, not just in terms of projecting sales but in terms of how they do business from the ground up.

And now: here’s their chance. Not by forcing value upon us (e.g. suing from an aggrieved position) but by proactively asserting that their products do indeed have value. Invaluable value.

And they can do this, paradoxically, by first offering us a gift. Never mind the promotional merit (which, as discussed, is real and significant)–how about simply seeing the mandatory free and legal MP3 each album must offer, according to the Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto, as just that?: a gift. The record companies and artists will give this gift to music fans, now, because the technology has long since arrived to make it possible, because it’s a valiant way to break into our fragmented, overconnected lives, because they so value what they produce that they want, first, to share it with us.

Because: when they hand out a yummy free sample of something earthy and organic at Whole Foods, do you think, “Well, gee, this must be worthless if they’re willing to give it away?” Or, “Hey, this must be pretty good or they wouldn’t be giving out tastes?”

The music industry has completely blown it so far, but here at the outset of what clearly is a brand new day I’m thinking maybe it’s not too late. And we, the music fans, can assume our responsibility in the matter as well. We can receive this gift with newfound appreciation. And with our appreciation we can likewise offer our hard-earned dollars when we hear something that moves us, that lifts our spirits, that assures us that it was created out of hope and inspiration and artistry.

And yeah I know not every piece of music is created in this manner. And I know this whole issue is complicated by convoluted circumstances and thorny issues. But I have a dream. And now I have a Manifesto. Change, as we have seen, may begin with just such things.

A Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto (part one)

A new Fingertips Commentary piece has been posted on the main site. It’s called “Got to Do What You Should,” is subtitled “A Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto,” and comes with the tagline: “Why the mainstream music industry must learn to stop worrying and love the free and legal MP3.”

I’ll post the essay here in two parts, one today, one tomorrow. The essay is the same here as on the main site, except there are a handful of footnotes accompanying the piece on the Fingertips site, which flesh out the subject at hand.

* * *

Careful followers of Fingertips may have noticed a blip in the normally smooth weekly presentation of free and legal MP3s in December, when a song I featured, Sam Phillips’ charming and deep “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” was pulled down by the record label before the end of the first week of being spotlighted here.

The record company, Nonesuch, a part of Warner Brothers, delivered an email apology to affected bloggers via Toolshed, the music promotion company with which it was working. Toolshed, you should know, is a digital-savvy company widely known for promoting musicians via the use of, typically, one free and legal MP3. In an effort to sound both contrite and magnanimous, Nonesuch took the blame upon itself, exonerating bloggers of any legal wrongdoing. The problem, said the Nonesuch executive, was that he never realized Toolshed was going to put MP3s online versus streams.

Okay, so he didn’t know that a company that pretty much always uses free and legal MP3s to promote its clients was going to use a free and legal MP3 to promote Sam Phillips. Fair enough. But his supposedly generous gesture, absolving bloggers of criminal activity, was irritating for those of us (myself, and at least one other) who only seek to post free and legal MP3s in the first place. It’s our stated policy. We do not want to post MP3s that are not free and legal.

Meaning that if a free and not-legal MP3 somehow slips through the cracks, guess what? It’s a mistake. The only way it happens–as with the Phillips song–is when the MP3 is presented as free and legal. There was no way for anyone to know it wasn’t until, oops!, the very record company who released it decides it didn’t really mean to.

I am so happy to know that Nonesuch will see to it that the law will spare me punishment for something that was an unavoidable mistake.

Beyond merely irritating me, this incident illustrates yet again how baffled the major record companies remain when it comes to downloads. The Nonesuch executive could not bring himself to utter the name “MP3” in his explanatory letter; what he said was, “I did not realize these tracks were not streaming.” It’s like okay, if I don’t mention MP3s, they don’t exist. To the big boys, there is no difference between free and legal and free and not-legal. The big problem to them is “free.” Free does not compute.

This is a common attitude at the upper echelons of the music industry. We all know that they hate illegally posted MP3s, but the truth is they hate legally posted MP3s also, when they’re free. Which is why, by and large, the bigger record companies never post them. (Or, when they do–hello, Nonesuch!–it’s probably a mistake.)

I’m not surprised about this, of course. When all is said and done, the big labels continue to do what big labels have always done best: burrow their heads deep in the sand when faced with changes to the status quo. Having been dragged against their will into a world in which music exists digitally, without a physical product that needs to be manufactured, they continue to try to make this new world function like the old one.

But everything changes when music is available digitally. Major record company desire notwithstanding, there has not been and there never will be a slick and handy transition from everyone buying physical copies of songs and albums to everyone buying digital copies of songs and albums. The appearance of free digital music has gotten in the middle of all this and has rendered the industry’s simplistic ideal an impossibility. The public will never buy everything it used to buy. The question for the music industry is whether it wants to work with this reality or continue to fight it.

I contend that if the industry keeps fighting it, more and more potential revenue (and customers) will be lost. If, on the other hand, the industry finally starts to accept digital reality, which includes the reality of a certain amount of freely distributed music, the record companies might learn how to stop worrying and love the free and legal MP3.

For it is in fact the free and legal MP3 that might yet save the music industry.

So far, of course, the major record companies are nowhere near understanding this. They–along with a surprising number of smaller record companies–cling against all reason and evidence to the belief that “protecting” every single song on an album is somehow the road to increased sales, and they rally around any scheme that seeks to circumvent the reality of downloading altogether. Look no further than the current hyping of unlimited streaming services to see the lengths to which the music industry continues to want to fool itself.

And yet the actual answer to a workable future for record labels and musicians alike is staring everyone in the face. What needs to be done is not complicated. Lord knows I never thought I’d be quoting Ronald Reagan, but what we have here is pretty much a “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” moment. Only in this case it’s more like “Mr. Gorbachev, put a gate in the wall.” Because I’m not saying everything has to be free. That’s silly and unrealistic. I’m just saying one song has to be free. One song from every album and EP.

So that’s it–that’s my Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto. It’s got one immutable principle: Every album or EP released by anyone, anywhere, should have one easy-to-access free and legal MP3 available. Moving forward, this should be the industry standard.

Note that it doesn’t have to be two or three or four free and legal MP3s. Just one free and legally distributed song per album, across the board. And note that I mean one easily accessible free and legal MP3, not a file you can access only after surrendering your email address, or a file so buried beneath Flash-based web tricks that you can’t figure out where the download has gone. One accessible link to a free and legal MP3, for every album released.

If this sounds like what is already going on–well, believe me, it’s not. Yes, in the particular corner of the independent music world in which Fingertips largely hangs out, many albums automatically come with a free and legal MP3 or two. But you may be surprised how often this is not the case; Nonesuch Records is hardly the only culprit. Plus, there’s often a built-in dead end, as bands who get popular often disappear from free-and-legal-MP3-land. The Decemberists, for example, were Fingertips heroes in the site’s early years. But then they signed to Capitol Records and that was pretty much the end of the free and legal MP3s. Foolish strategy but it happens all the time.

Equally foolish, alas, is the strategy of over-compensating, of putting everything out there as free and legal MP3s. I appreciate the goodwill involved, but it actually doesn’t help anyone. It’s kind of a child-like response to the mean and crazy world, an immature coping mechanism: “Okay, if people want to take my stuff anyway, I’ll just let them have it, and hope that money will just magically appear because I’m being so nice and giving.”

Enough of that. Like President Obama (wow, huh?) just said, it’s time to put away childish things. The situation here demands level-headedness; it requires everyone to release the greedy pipedream of blockbuster sales so that we might all see a middle ground in which musicians can earn a living, record companies can thrive (but modestly, not extravagantly), and the music finds its rightful homes in people’s hearts (and iPods, or bookshelves, or wherever people most like to keep it).

So: let every album have one free and legal MP3. Other songs must be purchased; the album, if desired, must be purchased as well. If this were the industry standard, if every album had one free and legal MP3, the industry would be in better shape, and the path for future growth clearer.

For five reasons why this is true, come back tomorrow, or continue at the main Fingertips site.

New Commentary online

At long last, the Fingertips Commentary has reemerged. The topic is nothing less than the free and legal MP3 itself, something so obvious to write about that I haven’t, previously, written about it. I will post the whole essay here on the blog in two parts, beginning Wednesday. For the eager, curious, or bored, you can see the whole thing now on the main Fingertips site.



Earlier this year, a song called “45 RPM” was sent to a handful of influential British DJs. The song arrived on a white CD with the name “the Poppyfields” on it. There were no other identifying marks.

Wow, thought a few of these DJs. Pretty cool tune–at once jumpy and driving, with a catchy chorus, fervently sung, in the style of some of the popular new wave bands of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

“45 RPM” started showing up on British radio. No one seemed to know who the Poppyfields were but what the heck, a hot new band with a hot new single is all anyone’s ever looking for.

Except that in this case the hot new band wasn’t new at all. The Poppyfields were actually the Alarm–a band that does, indeed, date back to the new wave era.

Mike Peters, the band’s leader, wrote “45 RPM” while the Alarm toured in the U.S. this past fall.

“We knew it ws good when we finished it,” the 45-year-old band leader told the Philadelphia Inquirer in an interview published on March 8. “And we knew if we’d taken it to radio as an Alarm record, it wouldn’t have a chance.”

Thus the invention of the “Poppyfields”–named for a series of Internet-only CDs the band has been doing in recent years, called In the Poppy Fields.

“We felt we had nothing to lose,” Peters said. “It seemed to be the only way we could get a fair hearing.”

As the single moved into regular rotation on British radio, the Poppyfields abruptly needed some credible promotional material. In short order, the Alarm concocted a fake bio for a young punk band and even had a video shot featuring four teenaged musicians, play-acting convincingly.

The single rose into Britain’s Top 30 before word finally spread about the Poppyfields’ true identity.

The “45 RPM” ruse makes a great little story. There’s even an interesting lesson to be learned, although it may not be what you expect.

Yes, the music industry shamelessly prefers image over substance, youth over age; yes, this inclination, while always in the air, has worsened over the years as market research has long since replaced gut instinct when it comes to what’s played on the radio.

Even so, this situation–however frustrating and unfortunate–cannot be helped, because it is really an outgrowth of a larger problem that is all but intractable and in many ways isn’t truly a problem at all.

This “problem” is that there is too much music.

Not too much music for music fans, no no no. There can never be too much music for us music fans. (Right?) But from the perspective of radio programmers, the amount of music available these days is nothing short of, um, alarming.

Think about it: when the Alarm started, in 1979, the entire history of rock’n’roll, from Bill Haley onward, was contained within the previous 25 years. The Beatles had arrived in America only 15 years earlier, ushering in a sound upon which the classic rock of the ’60s and ’70s would be based.

For rock’n’roll radio professionals in 1979, a working knowledge of most if not all worthy bands and albums in the rock genre–particularly the post-1964 rock genre–was not only still expected at that point (imagine that!), it was also quite possible to have.

Today, 1979 itself is 25 years ago. Rock’n’roll history is twice as long as it was back then, and the amount of music contained therein has multiplied many many (many) times beyond.

What is a commercial rock station, seeking an identifiable sound, supposed to do about this? Clearly, most seek a specialty. While this is often presented as a demographic necessity, I’m beginning to see formats as commercial radio’s way of coping with there being too much music otherwise to filter and present in a cohesive manner.

While we tend to think of radio formats as genre-based–all-country stations, all-hip-hop stations, all-hard-rock stations, and so forth–radio may be more tellingly seen as segmented chronologically. When it comes to rock music in particular, commercial radio has effectively sliced off groups of years for us, presenting popular music in chronological clumps.

This trend began with the so-called “oldies” stations, which first appeared in earnest in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Pre-Beatles music–which sounded different in any case–was given its own sonic ghetto, and that seemed to work pretty well.

Until, that is, there was simply too much music to deal with–which happened, as far as I can see, between 1984 and 1994. Consider those the “tipping point” years.

This is when the “classic rock” radio format arose. Like the oldies format, the classic rock format sliced off a particular chunk of rock’s history and stayed there, forever. In classic rock’s case, the focus is on roughly 15 to 20 years’ worth of music

Because classic rock cuts off somewhere in the early ’80s, there have also emerged ’80s rock stations that play music from the ’80s only–another chronological clump of music.

This will continue to be necessary and will continue to happen as long as rock’n’roll continues to exist in some form or another.

But radio’s need to slice rock’n’roll history into manageable aural chunks has left few rock-based stations either willing or able to mix older and newer rock music together effectively.

So when an “old” band like the Alarm records an otherwise current-sounding song, we may suspect age prejudice at work, but it’s really more like organ rejection. With rock history divvied up into historical format/segments, it becomes difficult if not impossible for radio stations to pay attention to bands that stay around too long.

Thus the Alarm/Poppyfields, and the wacky irony that it’s easier for a young band to get airplay sounding like the Alarm than for the actual Alarm to get airplay.

Unfortunately for the Alarms of the world, radio isn’t changing; it can’t. Radio was simply not designed to deal with such a thing as a 25-year-old rock band with new records coming out. The Alarm is on its own.

As are we, the thoughtful music fans of the world. Not only was it easier to program a radio station back in 1974, with only about 10 years’ worth of useful music to choose from, it was a lot easier to be a music fan back then too. Nowadays there is no keeping track of everything. We need each other here because no one can do it on his or her own.

Such a reality may frustrate the determined collector and other sorts of quantitative-oriented aficionados. But maybe it’s not otherwise so terrible. Maybe, without radio to guide us effectively, music fans will grow to rely on an intuitive, synchronistic sort of browsing, whether online or in actual record stores (as long as they continue to exist!), to find what pleases them.

Speaking from my own experience, I find that this type of approach to the music scene can lead to unexpected places full of wonderful, even magical sounds.

The truth is that no one will ever know all of rock’n’roll again. For some, this may be alarming. I think it’s kind of exciting.