22 May 2007

Into Thin Air?

Pronouncements of the imminent death of CD's are increasing in frequency. Digital downloads, so say those in the know, are poised to take over completely. Unlike many, I am not so attached to CD's that I would oppose this simply out of conservative desperation. I do, however, want to point out a few things that I have yet to hear anyone mention.

First, even if recorded music becomes sold exclusively through online downloads, it still must be stored on some kind of media, both before and after the transaction. Whether that is a hard drive, a jump drive, an iPod, or god forbid a compact disc, the data is not simply going to disappear into thin air. The method of delivery may change drastically, but in the end, the music must still be delivered to someone somewhere and on to something. Barring the development of technology for downloading material objects, such devices will continue to be part of the picture. This fact ought to be embraced rather than lamented, for internet communications are too prone to eavesdropping and censorship to be allowed to become the sole method of transporting data from one computer to another.

Next, let's make a list of what one must presently be able to afford/possess in order to purchase and download music and why:

(1) A Credit Card
These days, most bank accounts come with check cards that work just the same, but they do not have the fraud protection that comes with a "real" credit card. They are a direct line to your bank account, and when that money is gone, it's gone for good. This means that it is exceedingly risky to use them for online shopping. A "real" credit card, on the other hand, is something that many poor people don't have, and also something that many others of all income levels do not otherwise want or need. To require a credit card in order to purchase recorded music would be to effectively shut out a large number of people from the process, or force them into a lifestyle decision they don't want to make.

(2) A Sufficiently Capable Computer
Every time I see one of those Dell commercials where the CEO says he is all about improving people's quality of life, I throw something at the television. Computer manufacturers mastered planned obsolescence long ago, and they continue to use it to this day in order to line their pockets. There are 20 year old CD players that still work fine, but how many 20 year old computers are there that can download a 3 minute song from iTunes? In any case, even "cheap" computers of any kind are still major investments for most people in the world today. I know plenty of people (musicians and music lovers all of them) whose computers couldn't download a piece of text, let alone an MP3 of virtually any length. Make this the only way to get recorded music and you have ensured that only the middle and upper classes have access.

(3) Sufficiently Capable Wired Internet Access
Of those who can afford a computer at all, how many can also afford an extra monthly bill for fast internet access? In most areas of the U.S., wireless can be had for free one way or another, but it is inherently insecure, making it risky to make purchases this way.

Of course, I could have it backwards: perhaps the demand for downloads among the working classes will lead to the spread of low-end MP3 players and automated downloading stations in malls where one can pay cash. The music and technology industries speak the language of money, and in the end, one would expect them to leave no market untapped. So, perhaps what we are facing here is only a temporary problem, not to mention one that has been faced a few times before. Nonetheless, I think that it is part of a larger problem anyway. From New York City jazz club cover charges to the price of commercially produced CD's, listening to music has already become somewhat forbidding to those without a lot of disposable income. It has been pointed out that, compared to CD's, downloads cost less for consumers and earn more for record labels. That is only true, however, if one assumes that the consumers all possess the three things listed above, and I still know enough people for whom this is not the case to make this cause for concern. I have enough money in the bank to afford several dozen gallons of jet fuel, but I do not own my own private jet. Such is the situation with downloads: what good is being able to buy a track for a dollar if one must invest hundreds or thousands of dollars accessorizing just to gain access to that track?

The industry has already shown us that changes in format don't just happen on their own for no reason. Perhaps it was inevitable that technology evolves faster now than it ever has before. However, this also means that it becomes more and more expensive for the masses to keep up, and easier for the industry to profiteer through planned obsolescence and other tactics. Coincidence? Consider current events: the RIAA continues it's misguided crusade against piracy, the Copyright Royalty Board is trying to kill internet radio as we know it, computer companies continue to implement planned obsolescence, and internet service providers are busy opposing the construction of municipal wireless internet utilities. Let's face it: to a great extent, the corporations have us by the balls, and where they don't, they sure would like to. If I thought that they had our best interests in mind, I would not be so hesitant to celebrate the inevitability of an all-download music business. As it is, however, I haven't really stopped to think about how I feel about downloading as a consumer; instead, I'm preoccupied with anticipating the consequences of allowing large media corporations to control all access to recorded music. Call me paranoid, but you never know. The affordability of home recording equipment coupled with, yes, the internet, has hastened the demise of the so-called "music industry." I, for one, would like to make sure the damn thing is completely dead (in addition to seeing the "digital divide" thoroughly bridged) before I'll be okay with the thought of obtaining recorded music exclusively through downloads.


indieartist said...

I work for a company called TuneCore, which is a music delivery and distribution service that gets artists' original music and record label releases up for sale on iTunes, eMusic, Rhapsody, SonyConnect, MusicNet and Napster without asking for rights or taking any money from the sale of the music. Basically, for the cost of a pizza, bands can get their music delivered worldwide and keep 100% of the profits. We are revolutionizing the industry by educating and empowering the indie artist. Sounds like we're cut from the same cloth. Check us out: www.tunecore.com

Stefan Kac said...

This is obviously spam, but it gives me an opportunity to clarify my position. I don't oppose downloading on principle; I'm just concerned about it taking over completely before very many people actually have access to the required equipment. Musicians ought to do everything they can to get their stuff out there to as many people as possible; have we considered the possibility that this may mean going low tech as well as high tech?