Online music: The whole is less than the sum of the parts

What’s wrong with this musical picture? I gladly admit to being a music junkie – I spent a good part of my younger life playing music for a living, I still play when I can, and I am constantly looking for (and finding) new things to listen to. Sure, I still go back and listen … Continue reading “Online music: The whole is less than the sum of the parts”

What’s wrong with this musical picture?

I gladly admit to being a music junkie – I spent a good part of my younger life playing music for a living, I still play when I can, and I am constantly looking for (and finding) new things to listen to. Sure, I still go back and listen to old favorites, but that has no impact on the drive to discover music yet unheard, artists yet unknown.

I am also pressed for time and have enough income that I am willing to spend some money to acquire music the easy and convenient way.

So the emergence of commercial online music sources should be exactly what I need – lots of information about the artists (usually from the All Music Guide), ways of cross-linking performers and genres, wide (if not comprehensive) selection, and good (if not great) quality sound files.

I’ve been an avid user of the iTunes Music Store since it first went live, and lately I’ve enjoyed trying out the Napster To Go subscription service with a Dell DJ portable player.

So what’s not to like?

It’s the damn copy protection, of course. Let me explain.

I have two computers at work – one Mac and one Windows box. I have a Mac laptop. I have two computers at home, again one Mac and one PC, plus I have a Slim Devices Squeezebox for streaming digital music to my stereo. I have a Rio flash memory mp3 player and would like to buy a hard drive player.

The music purchased from iTunes will play on both Mac and Windows (as long as I use the iTunes application in both places), but not on the Squeezebox or on the Rio or the DJ. The Napster music will work on Windows PCs (as long as I use the Napster application) and on the DJ, but not on the Macs, the Squeezebox, or the Rio.

In addition, there is no way to integrate music from Napster and iTunes together into a single collection, which should be one of the great advantages of managing a music collection on a computer.

All this in the interest of trying to lock up the music so I won’t put it up on a peer-to-peer filesharing network – which I wasn’t going to do do anyway.

Do I occasionally make copies of songs or even entire albums for my friends? Sure – we’ve all been doing that since the advent of cassette recorders in the early ’70s. I didn’t notice that having a negative impact on record sales over the years – did you?

At least with iTunes there are ways of making the files work on other systems. Funny thing – I haven’t noticed Apple’s sales declining either.

So, as much as I’m enjoying the all-you-can-eat model of the Napster subscription, I’m not going to buy an account. I’m sorry, but I’m not willing to let my choice of computing environments be dictated by what music service will play where.

Astute historians will recall that none of this is new – the music industry has a long history of combatting the rise of new ways of enjoying music:

In 1907 the sheet music industry fought against player-piano rolls:

White-Smith Music Publishing Company v. Apollo Company 209 U.S. 1 (1907) was a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States which ruled that manufacturers of music rolls for player pianos did not have to pay royalties to the composers. The ruling was based on a holding that the piano rolls were not copies of the plaintiffs’ copyrighted sheet music, but were instead parts of the machine that reproduced the music.

This case was subsequently eclipsed by Congress’s intervention in the form of an amendment to the Copyright Act in 1909, introducing a compulsory license for the manufacture and distribution of such “mechanical” embodiments of musical works.

You can see Chapter 11 of Donald Clarke’s The Rise and Fall of Popular Music for details about the running battles among the record companies and radio stations and publishers during the 1940’s that led to ASCAP publishers boycotting radio stations and a musicians strike.

Right up to the late ’70s where the industry blamed a sales slump on the advent of home taping on cassette recorders:

…anyone who rewinds to the last major music-biz slump will find some interesting parallels. In 1978, record sales began to fall, and the major labels blamed a larcenous new technology: cassette tapes. The international industry even had an outraged official slogan: “Home taping is killing music.” The idea was that music fans—ingrates that they are—would rather pirate songs than pay for them, and that sharing favorite songs was a crime against hard-working musicians (rather than great word-of-mouth advertising). Cassettes were so anathema to the biz that Sex Pistols Svengali Malcolm McLaren could think of no more provocative way to launch his new band, Bow Wow Wow, than with a ode to home taping, “C30, C60, C90, Go!”

By the time Bow Wow Wow bowed in 1980, however, the crisis was almost over. It turned out that home taping had not killed music. Instead, the central problem was the collapsing popularity of dance-pop—lively, sexy, but personality-free music whose appeal was broad but thin. They called it disco back then, and the name has never recovered from the era’s backlash. Although usually termed teen-pop, the music of ‘N Sync and Britney Spears is not unlike disco: Both are intellectually underachieving, cookie-cutter styles that have made stars of performers not known primarily for their skills as singers, songwriters, or musicians.

And so it continues to the present day. Mark Cuban hits the nail on the head yesterday with an essay titled “The definition of insanity.. The Music Industry”, where he says:

There is an old saying that the definition of insanity is, “Doing the same thing over and over again expecting the outcome to change”

I think of this saying everytime I hear about music industry efforts to impact piracy.

After some great summations of the details he goes on to conclude:

The music industry has a very unique opportunity to really re-establish itself as a growth industry. It’s not like they don’t know all of the above. For whatever reason, they just love to do the same things over and over… Which to me is just insane.

One has to think that sooner or later the folks in the music industry will come to their senses and offer music in open formats at reasonable prices. I’ll be waiting with my wallet open when they do.

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