On the sharing of music… #music #piracy #user_experience #FAIL

Ok this is a bit of a rant, I guess the reading time is approx 10 minutes so if you don’t have the time for the back story & considerations, skip to the image of the chair with no legs & read from there…

This post was motivated by first reading of the RIAA court case where a Boston student was fined US$22,500 per song for file sharing (x 30 songs = US$675,000!?!) and later on reading observations made by someone actually involved in the case as a technical witness. I linked to the latter on twitter and was asked soon after what my thoughts were by a fellow composer. I knew I needed more than 140 characters to reply but ever since I’ve been attempting to clarify what it is that instinctively told me that bankrupting kids is not the best way to deal with music piracy. And permanently disconnecting them from the internet isn’t the way either… But what is?

To rationalise this I think first I need to clarify the ‘crimes’ ie the motivation for them & wider ramificiations. And then consider how we might evolve such that the need for the crime disappears… So as I see it there are two crimes; the lesser crime of downloading pirated music, and the far more serious crime of filesharing i.e. making pirated music available online. Now to a judge I am sure these are considered as seperate, discreet crimes but in reality that is not necessarily the case. If for example some kid was to download the latest U2 album via bit torrent; for the entire time they are downloading it they are also file sharing, as that is how bit torrent works – all data is in a cloud, accessible by all the other people in the cloud who are also all simultaneously downloading. It is possible to disable the upload aspect but by default access is two way. Now this isn’t a defence of either crime, but it is simply to illustrate that with no prior knowledge or intent, a kid downloading an album worth $20 becomes a filesharing pirate, capable of being fined US$675,000!

So why download music? Some would argue that at least some of the time it is a victimless crime, since if a kid does not have the money to buy that U2 album & downloads it, there is essentially no loss to U2. The record label would presumably argue that the kid shouldn’t be listening to the album at all if they can’t afford to buy it, but it also sets a questionable precedent ie will that kid ever decide to start paying for music?
A recent survey which monitored the use of music of young people between the ages of 14-24 revealed some facts that aren’t a surprise but are symptomatic of a change in behaviour:
‘68% of 14- to 24-year-olds listen to music on their computer every day, and the average hard drive contains 8,159 tracks – the equivalent of 17 full days of music. With 61% admitting to downloading music through peer-to-peer networks or torrent trackers, 86% owning up to copying CDs for friends and 75% saying they have sent music by email, Bluetooth, Skype or MSN, young people’s attitude to the law is refreshingly clear.”

image credit

Now the image above is cute, but it only tells half the story. Sure downloading an album is not the same as stealing a CD from a record store, but the damage done in downloading pirated music is a magnitude larger in terms of the erosion of value of that music. Let me explain; the value of an album is twofold – there is the creative value (ie how good the songs, music, ideas, production & artwork are) and then there is the market value created through supply & demand. Stealing a CD is not wise, but at least everyone knows that CD has been stolen. Sharing an album online means that an unknown number of people will receive a copy of it without paying for it & it thereby breaks the supply & demand basis of the financial value of the album. But does it also impact on the creative value of the album? Consider each of those kids with 8,000 songs on their hard drives, if I guessed an average album had 15 songs then its like they each have a record collection of over 500 albums. Now I have been a music fan since day one, but by the time I was 24 I doubt I owned 100 or even 50 albums. I was constrained by the financial cost of buying music, but what that meant is that I valued the music I had. I auditioned albums & I only bought the ones that I knew I truly wanted. I suspect nowadays kids don’t even think twice about grabbing a copy of whatever latest album & they audition it from their hard disk. And in the process all incentive to own that album (through paying for it) is lost. So one kid uploads an album to a file sharing site & by that act alone literally thousands of people no longer have any incentive to buy it, ever. This is a very serious ramification of what would otherwise appear a benevolent act.

Now this isn’t exactly a new problem, although its now on a scale unimaginable in the past – maybe some of you are old enough to remember the ‘Home taping is killing music’ campaign? Does this image ring any bells?

image credit

I remember at secondary school plenty of people taping albums from friends, in fact some ghetto blasters were designed for this purpose. But guess what? It didnt kill the music industry, in fact it facilitated the kids who actually loved music enough to bother copying it to develop & broaden their taste in music – in effect it faciliated them becoming music fans. The scale was different, it took real time to copy the music & the copies got progressively hissier… but it illustrates that the present situation is evolution at work, and accordingly any equitable solution is only going to be reached through further evolution. And before I move on, go have a quick look at this image – it shows the value of units shipped from 1973 to 2008 for each music format & the year in which they peaked.

One of the solutions proffered by media theorists is that streaming music is the answer to piracy – I see it as one important element of the solution but there are two issues with this approach. Firstly, internet access to facilitate streaming is not omnipresent nor free, so eg listening to streaming audio in my car would be a problem. The second problem is that ‘ the survey found huge enthusiasm for streaming music, such as on Spotify or YouTube, but 78% of respondents said they would not be prepared to pay for a streaming service.’ So how does it generate revenue, which is the whole reason that piracy is a problem ie people getting music for free. While advertising is one possible revenue source, we are then back to commercial radio as a model for streaming & frankly I don’t listen to commercial radio due to the presence of inane ads. As with youtube & myspace, the presence of advertising means I gravitate away from those sites to find equivalent ad-free sites (eg vimeo & facebook/twitter/soundcloud) but its worth noting that of these ‘ad-free’ alternatives two of the four I happily pay a yearly fee to access, as I appreciate the quality of their service. Advertising does not serve the user & I think anyone with a website should think long & hard before integrating advertising, unless it is very, very closely associated with the subject matter of the site.

image credit (help please?)

So whats my solution to piracy?

Firstly to try & help the RIAA rationalise what to do with filesharers I think instead of bankrupting kids they should adopt a more moral, ethical approach by creating some kind of auditing process, whereby if someone is caught filesharing the first step is that they have their music library audited and anything they do not own of the 8,159 tracks is deleted. If a fine is required, make them do community service for the music industry. Also make them aware that this is their first warning and they will be randomnly audited again within the next 12 months, just like someone who does not pay their taxes, and they will continue to be regularly audited until they prove their behaviour has changed.

But thats like putting an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff, I think the main philosophical change has to be that the erosion of value must be reversed. In the history of music formats the LP is still the ultimate in my opinion, because of the ritualistic way which you engage with it. You have to consciously put an LP on to listen to it and in so doing you engage with the artwork. Every format since then (cassette -> CD -> MP3) has been a reduction in experience and this is where I think music delivery as an artform has been a failed experiment (other than in specific cases) where the user loses. Is it a coincidence that music has become a faceless, artless data file and at the same time kids don’t really care about it, place value on it or are prepared to spend money on it?

My solution would be twofold: first there has to be a legitimate cheap (ie free) means of auditioning music. Streaming is one form of it but I also think a form of file sharing of media has to be a part of that too. Music is inherently social and much of the new music I buy I find out about through the recommendations of people I know. In that sense streaming or embedding music works, as blogs & in fact all forms of social media fill a curatorial role; they become the record labels, radio stations & promoters. Word of mouth is the most important form of promotion because it arrives to us in the context of a trusted opinion. In that sense the music industry needs to evolve a means where instead of bankrupting a kid for filesharing, they are given credit for promoting the music to their peers.

The second aspect is for the true fans – the people who have heard enough to commit & know that they are interested in supporting the artist. This is a great feeling that we all know & it needs to be promoted as an ethical, moral choice. But there has to be value in this act. If I choose to buy into Radiohead or whoever and spend hard earned money I don’t want to be given a faceless set of data files & then ignored. I want to see artwork & engage with the artist & the community of other people who are fans of that artist. But be aware that many people do not want physical media, so the digital copy of the album that I buy needs to hold MORE value in terms of user experience than the CD or vinyl LP did. And it needs to be a certifiable asset, I want a receipt when I buy it & if I had a drive crash or something I want to be able to access the content again for free. Ideally I would also like to be able to sell my digital copy, so that as with LPs and CDs if I tire of the album & wish to sell it I can.

I have always been at a total loss as to why music artwork has had such a steady decline. Sure the smaller form of the CD was a reduction from LP artwork but get this: the cost of producing & delivering artwork has steadily declined to the point of being negligble, so why isn’t there a plethora of great music design? I don’t mean the equivalent of a good CD cover & booklet, I mean an evolution of this. Compare the design & production costs of making a double LP gatefold sleeve with that of embeding even a single image for each album track. But I want more than that, as an example I bought a Beck DVD a year or two ago & the disk came with 5.1 mixes of each album track, plus traditional music videos and stunning graphic design elements. Now some musicians might say that their music does not suit overly designed media attached to it, but I ask you this: if your album was going to be released as a double vinyl LP, with an insert for liner notes etc you would find appropriate design & content to fill the available space, so why not with digital? But that is just the beginning, why couldn’t an evolved digital music file playing on my computer also tap into the bands website & trigger syncronised elements to display or interact with? Now some people will say that costs a lot of money, but that doesnt explain why albums bought online dont even include the equivalent of CD artwork? Its a case of #USER_EXPERIENCE #FAIL

Ok I think I’ve arrived at the real moral of this rant – why is the digital music delivery format so much less than every format before it?

And lastly a joke; An RIAA lawyer and an old school record label executive are both drowning. You can only save one. Do you 1) read the newspaper or 2) go to lunch?

(via @DarkPiano, but altered a little)

9 thoughts on “On the sharing of music… #music #piracy #user_experience #FAIL

  1. Enos Desjardins

    Piracy has been and is one of those “crimes” that seems impossible to tackle and any attempt to put a full halt to it would be almost impossible!

    I won’t get into what the right punishment should be or what the best method to stop it might be as we could keep talking and talking and running in circles.

    However, the aspect which makes me most sad of the way things are going, is the user experience/product value side of the story. I have always happily paid for any record I enjoyed and wanted to add to my collection. I am still relatively young so I missed out on the whole LP and vinyl part of the music history. However, I can still remember how I eagerly unpackaged any cassetes and then CDs I bought eagerly looking into the leaflet to see the artwork, read the lyrics and see the credits. For me, having an album on my shelf with all the artwork and whatever comes with it has always been a joy and anything I added to my collection was, as mentioned, something I had auditioned and heard of before going and buying it. This whole process of word of mouth, auditioning and then buying the album is what for me has given value to each record in my collection. Today, I still continue buying CDs even though some people are already seeing that as bulky and old-fashioned! The point is that I don’t feel any incentive whatsoever to buy an album online as a downloaded digital file. This has two parts too:

    On one side, without entering into moral and ethical discussions, why pay for something if I can get the exact same product for free as a download on any of the many torrent sites.

    But the main issue is, I don’t get that “buzz” of going to the record store to pick up that CD I’ve been meaning to buy and finally tearing the plastic packaging off and wandering into the content and artwork of the record. I LIKE to have that physical CD on my shelf. Something I can pick up, stick in into the player, pick out the artwork and read through the lyrics as I hear the song. I can take this anywhere and the fact of it being a physical CD means that if I do decide to take it anywhere, it means I value it enough to be carrying it around! Paying for and downloading an album online via any legal store is about as cold as it can get and frankly, I do not feel in any way emotionally attached to the album I am buying. Not to mention that it quickly dissapears into a long list of names that represent the ones and zeros that are stored in your hard drive.

    I think many people would pay the money if new and innovative ways of markleting and giving value to records were developed. I for one hope that music can continue being a piece of art you can buy and own and talk about and not just one of many downloads to which you hardly end up listening to anyways.

    This whole story is a sad one and does not happen only in music but is reflected in most aspects of these modern times… The human elements slowly dissapear as we think only in sales and ones & zeros =(

  2. britmic

    An interesting read. As someone who collected music on vinyl and then CD, using cassette tape as the “in car” medium (today it’s MP3 on CDR in the car, or via FM dongle plugged into my iPhone), I’ve never felt I ever engaged with the product packaging. What was important to me was the music, the sound, the sound waves hitting my ears – and lyrics, the message, meaning, subtext. I’d listen with my eyes closed (nowadays with work, family, kids etc, listening like this is a rare occasion indeed!). I won’t get into an argument other whether digital recording leads to poor quality audio other than to say there is a lot of badly encoded MP3s out there.
    Personally I really like Apple’s current approach – DRM-free and well encoded files with your store ID watermarked into the file that are reasonably priced. So, if you share it, everyone can see where it came from (although I’m sure this watermark could be hacked, I’m sure most people don’t even know it exists).
    So, as sales of physical CD declines and sales of digital copies at online stores increase, there is no “ripping” to badly encoded MP3. Those who know about the watermark will be careful who they share it with – likely only close friends, much like letting a mate take a cassette copy back in the day. Some of this copying activity generates new fans and new sales (in the UK cassettes and recordable are taxed for payments to MCPS coffers). Those who share the “old fashioned way” leave their fingerprints all over the digital copies and can be caught easily via registered credit card address.
    However, there is a fundamental shift happening: we are entering an age of abundance – the normal rules of supply-and-demand don’t work anymore and people see right through artificial shortages intended to create demand (since we are better connected and able to communicate our truths to each other on things like twitter). We have too much choice in everything we do. Will people pay good money for a tailored editorial (always with the option of stepping outside the editorial for other angles)? Whilst new markets like Nigeria and China are exploited using the old system, we who are spoilt by abundance must be humbled. Abundance today is a privilege, not a right.
    One thing’s for sure: my above ramble won’t make music piracy go away.

  3. george

    it’s a tough topic exploring a vicious circle. i reckon it is the products of mediocre quality that encourage piracy, but then, piracy takes away from the quality of products by devaluing the medium (stated in your post). my feeling is the only viable solution is somewhere halfway in between – suitable delivery mechanisms and prices, and education of listeners of some sorts.

    one thing i find better with digital is that it freely accommodates formats that otherwise don’t fit on traditional media. 5.1 as an example. the other thing about digital formats, delivered on the internet – they potentially need no middlemen.

  4. aL:

    The first mistake was calling it “piracy”. Piracy has far too many romantic and sexy notions tied to it. Immediately people think of a “pirate” as an under-class hero, sticking it to “The Man”. Except that the people they are really sticking it to are the artists who create the content. The record companies may whine about financial woes, but they pass all their losses along to the artists by not bothering to pay or dropping them, or along to the consumer with higher prices for crappier content.

    Of course, it’s hard to expect kids to behave with some degree of morality when governments are busy rewarding outright theft by financial institutions…

  5. tim

    I think I’m vaguely talking about the new Apple Cocktail iTunes thing, except its hard to tell how open it is until its released… I hold more hope for it than the big fours CMX thing….



    Reuters has unearthed more information regarding Apple’s in-development Cocktail project, suggesting the project will see future music albums sold as applications through the App Store.

    The report suggests that the aim of the game is to offer existing music purchasers their albums in a more interactive – and more expensive – format. Consumers will get the music they’re after along with other elements to boost the value of the digital deal, including photos, videos, lyrics and more.

    Cocktail will enable music fans to play an album without having to open iTunes, though it’s expected to be limited to the iPhone and iPod touch
    devices, along with the mythical but seems likely for imminent introduction Apple tablet device.

    In an interesting glimpse at the behaviour of music purchasers, a major-label source told Reuters that, “when a digital album is released as both a standard music-only download and a deluxe download with extra content, the deluxe version typically outsells the standard one by 85 percent to 90 percent in the first few weeks after its release, even though it usually costs $2 to $5 more.”

  6. Michal Fojcik

    My two cents

    What really makes me sad (as I like having the artwork in hand, while listening to the album too) is that today music is rated in GB’s (Re 8200 mp3’s). In every field there is a progress in quality (ie Mpixels in cameras, even phone cameras; full HD tv sets…) and products are advertised by this numbers.
    In music, size of a storage device is most important. Not quality. (People are listening music on their laptops speakers…)
    So music is consumed now, not valued.
    It’s terrifying, that you can download someones all life music work in one zip file.
    But it won’t change, I think.

    But on the other hand, I read the interview with the musician (whose performance was embedded on this site some time ago) and he admited, that he is downloading music from the net. He said that, thanks to the mp3 file format music travels all around the world. And thanks to it, his music is known in my country.

    Art (music, movies) became acessible for everyone now. A few centuries ago you could buy villages for price of library…

    But I don’t think people will stop downloading files. If the society had something for free in the past, why should they agree to pay for it in the future (since quality doesn’t matter for most of them)?

  7. chaircrusher

    The music industry isn’t dying because of piracy, it’s dying because major labels no longer release music that matters to anyone. I don’t think I’ve bought any music released by a major in years, and I buy a lot of music. Back in the day Captain Beefheart was on a major label. Thelonius Monk was on a major label. And artists like Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye managed to bridge the gap between popular music and art.

    I think there are remedies short of suing fans. Even people that BT music also buy music — on ITunes, on Vinyl, and even on CD. And the licensing thing is baloney. I’ve “illegally” downloaded music that I’ve paid for, sometimes more than once, just because it saved having to find the original and rip it.

    The piracy lawsuits are not about morality. They’re about who can afford the baddest lawyers. They’re about law that has been repeatedly distorted by the influence of industry lobbyists. They are about an industry that has gone completely tone deaf with respect to their customer base.

    People — even kids — will pay for music, if it’s 1) Convenient 2) Affordable and 3) Good. The music industry was caught flat footed because they didn’t bother to understand and take advantage of new technologies as they were invented — they always fought absurd rear-guard wars against them.

    Stupid, Stupid, Stupid.

  8. Q

    you know, I must say that I personally don’t think piracy is a crime. It’s technology coupled with evolution… or more simply “evolution”. The only people mad are older, and usually the ones losing money (duh) but all us young artists are simply in a new environment and are busy redefining/reassembling the experience that was once (and only briefly in the long term of things) “purchasing product or recorded music”. I mean, for all we really know, recorded and duplicated sound at all was bad for art/music blah blah. Main point, Let’s keep laws away from the artistic experience as much as we can and really get creative with what we’re asking people to pay money for.

    p.s. I love your blog man.

  9. Kaplan

    Cheapest solution to piracy: FLOOD AND FORCE THE MARKET WITH AUDIO CASSETTES. That is correct AUDIO CASSETTES. The rectangle with 2 rotating wheels.

    Today Piracy really means Internet piracy – internet downloads and peer to peer – others are insignificant.

    CDs get ripped easily and uploaded as rar files or torrents. MP3 need not be ripped with very little loss.

    With cassettes, you need to rip into Mp3, something that is very lossy.

    The technique works. Telugu language film music of India, bands in Zimbabwe, South Africa etc all use “Cassette Flooding”.

    Yes, they are successful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *