Thoughts on Music
[Dear Reader, below is an abridged version of the rather long original post which can be found here]
About two weeks ago Steve Jobs, influential CEO of Apple Inc., did a rare thing. He issued a lengthy formal statement entitled â€œThoughts On Music.â€ It was a lightening rod document, drawing criticism and praise from pop culture pundits, recording industry spokespeople, and even lawmakers of European Union nations. This was unsurprising given that a pending EU lawsuit could force Apple to adopt a common DRM (Digital Rights Management) song file format with competing companies like Microsoft, Sony and others. In other words, Apple would have to make their iTunes Music Store play nice with music players that compete with the industry-dominating iPod, losing some of their competitive edge in the retail digital music sector. While these thoughts on music are worth debating, I think to the human population at large, they are irrelevant.
Indeed, even a bear like me, who enjoys listening to music, creating music, and distributing music digitally in the form of a â€˜podcastâ€™ is nonplussed by the hullabaloo. But perhaps my animal instincts afford me a rare, and more simplistic view of why this digital music topic hits a nerve.
In fact, Iâ€™m going to be so bold (as bears can be) to say Iâ€™ve solved the riddle of the digital music revolution. The problem is simple, so I think the solution should be too. This talk of DRMs or no DRMs is just confusing.
The Problem: Humans aged 10 to 30, predominately in households with broadband internet access, all over the world have gone from wanting free music to expecting it. iTunes, Rhapsody, eMusic, Napster, etc. are all welcome and good innovations, and there is certainly a large portion of this population that continues to pay for recorded music at both brick and mortar retail and digital purchase points. But the devaluation of recorded music will continue in a correlative arc to the increasing number of humans who are afforded broadband Internet access and digital music devices. Itâ€™s that simple. So what do we do?
Give it to them.
The beauty of my solution is its simplicity and practicality. The business model I propose is historically proven to produce art of timeless value and compensate the artists with living wages. But before I get deep into that, let me also describe another phenomenon Iâ€™ve noticed.
Not entirely coincidentally, the evolution of digital technologies that have made it easy obtain a copy of the new Radiohead album two months prior to its release date have also made it easier for humans to avoid the mass marketing campaigns designed to sell such albums, among other things. Tivo has given the television advertising industry many a sleepless night recently. Likewise commercial-free Satellite Radio networks are getting more subscribers defecting from commercial FM radio audiences. The point of this is humans not only expect free music, they have shorter attention spans, and their intolerance for advertising is growing. Like the demand for free music, this intolerance of traditional advertising will grow correlative to the number of humans afforded broadband Internet and modern digital media devices like Tivo and satelite radio. What to do?
Again, give it to them. Give them unobtrusive advertisements.
Iâ€™m sure Iâ€™m not the first to propose this, but itâ€™s a notion so simple perhaps only a seven year old, or a bear would dare to say it. And before you call me a dreamer, or a music industry anarchist, hear me out. My idea is not only simple, itâ€™s democratic and capitalist. And hereâ€™s the kicker: We have the technology! In fact teenagers have this technology right now, on their computers. It was this generation that got us into this pickle, and I dare say it will be this generation that gets us out.
Okay then, are you ready? Here is the new-media, new-market digital music revolution solution: Patronage. If it worked in the Renaissance, it can work today. Just swap marble sculptures and chapel ceilings for songs. Todayâ€™s Internet is really, really good at distributing songs. If song downloads were sponsored by companies, institutions, and individuals willing to pay competitive market rates to use them as carriers of their subtle advertising messages, why bother to charge the users for possessing them? Let them have their free music.
What will it look like? My revolutionary prototype looks and behaves nearly exactly like the songs humans have been interacting with on their computers and iPods for five years now. They are still compressed audio files (The open version of Apple’s popular AAC format, roughly 10 times smaller in bytes than the dying CD standard). The point at which it differs is relatively miniscule: Instead of the attached album artwork, the premiere downloadable version of this song would feature an ad image replacing the album art. Thatâ€™s it.
I can hear some of you grumbling. Youâ€™re saying:
â€œWait a second. You donâ€™t have to look at the album art in iTunes. You can close the little window. Likewise you can put your video iPod in your pocket. Advertisers want to know their ads are being looked at, right?â€
Itâ€™s true you donâ€™t have to look at the album art in media library applications, but the trend is to make these features more pronounced (Cover Flow, Front Row). What this form of advertisement lacks in size (itâ€™s a far cry from a billboard) and sensory onslaught (I think we all agree the 10 decibel gain on TV commercial segments is just cause for Tivo retribution) it makes up for in super-multiple, residual views/listens. Humans will listen to their favorite songs tens, even hundreds of times. As digital devices evolve, screens will become bigger, brighter, cheaper, and more portable. They will be in our pockets, our cars, our living rooms, kitchens and offices. In the future avoiding images attached to songs will be less and less an option.
â€œBut you can even manually remove and assign album art to songs in applications like iTunes. People would just remove the ads and keep the songs.â€
Itâ€™s true you can manually attach and remove album art to songs in iTunes. Like I said, we have the technology. Teenagers have the technology. But not everyone knows that like iTunes, Apple has also written a free, downloadable application called Chapter Tool for independent media publishers to enhance their podcasts. With Chapter Tool, or the Mac-bundled application Garageband, itâ€™s a cinch to â€˜drag and dropâ€™ an image to be embedded in the audio file in a way that a user cannot manually remove it. One can also add a url to the image making it perform as a hyperlink in iTunes, just like a web banner ad. (Having said that, undoubtably someone will invent a tool to remove these kinds of images from songs, but most people, I reckon, wonâ€™t be bothered enough to do it. Particularly if they got the song for free.)
â€œHow could you propose divorcing classic album art from the song files? Is nothing sacrosanct?â€
Iâ€™m not proposing undoing anything thatâ€™s already been done. Applications like iTunes and music download retailers will continue to grow in functionality and popularity. Iâ€™m not proposing that when the Beatles finally make their fashionably late entrance to the download party â€œHelp!â€ be accompanied by an insurance company logo. What I am suggesting is the time period (the month preceeding the release of an album) that is now taken up by a frenzy of file-sharing — resulting in lost sales — simply be decriminalized (see, that word sounds way too severe doesnâ€™t it? Humans don’t really find it criminal.) Instead, the recording industry can take a cue from both the publishing and TV world by releasing an album song by song â€” to build a steady stream of anticipation — with each song bearing a patronâ€™s seal. It’s easy to swallow right? Basically this ‘Patrons Seal’ would be an ad, or logo in place of album art. These patrons would obviously pay more for the most popular recording artists the same way Patrons paid more handsomely for the Michelangelo and DaVinci’s of the past. A system not unlike online banner advertisements could be easily configured to provide stats and metrics for the keen song patron. Then, after this month-long sponsored engagement, the tracks (higher quality versions, likely) could be sold ad-free (with proper album art, bonus songs, bonus videos, etc.) on iTunes, etc. and as CDs in retail stores. There will always be late-comers, quality purists, and the uninitiated who will happily pay for music, just like there will forever be those who expect not to.
Humans can start now by making music and promoting it with concerts and on the internet. They can, like I have, choose to release their music freely hoping to reach more people in less time, and should they find themselves in possession of a small audience they can begin soliciting for patrons. (Or if they are particularly persuasive, the audience is not even required!) With these first patrons (Aunt Agnes, Paola’s Pizzaâ€¦baby steps) they can fund promotional CD pressings, or guitar amps, or a tour van or whatever it is they need to keep going. Meanwhile, their friends who really don’t want to pay to listen to their music on their iPods don’t have to. Is that not at least close to teenage utopia?
To put my new-media, new-market digital music revolution solution to the test, Iâ€™m going to try and implement my strategy on my own. Me, little Podington Bear. Beginning today I will be soliciting patrons for my songs beginning in March. To both keep it realistic and avoid being called a sell-out I am only accepting individuals and small businesses as patrons for the month of March. The fees are sliding scale, but to cover my expenses (I will be manufacturing 1000 promotinal CDs) I am asking for $100 per song from individuals, and $200 for business sponsorships. I welcome your participation, dear reader! Yes you! Individuals may, for example, attach a picture of their baby, or dog, or motorcycle and some text to my song orâ€¦ the skyâ€™s the limit. Likewise businesses may simply submit their logo and url link, or a napkin drawing, or stock photography. For more on this pitch, including stats and photo illustrations you can download this handy PDF. Iâ€™m just the court musician.