A sideways view of the mp3 debate

Just a few notes on the recent discussion of the ethics of mp3 hosting, sharing and consumption.

1. The most important point — for me — is that mp3s give me a chance to actually hear stuff that I wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to hear. This is a good thing in my view. DJ mixes in particular is what I go looking for, but mp3 sharing services are also great for actually getting a listen to grime, dancehall, techno so I can know what people are talking about. In other words, I can get to hear music it would otherwise be almost impossible for me to buy — up here in Sheffield anyway. You can’t buy that much grime online either.

2. The second point is that mp3s can sometimes fulfil a different usage occasion for me. Tracks that I want to listen to occasionally, or more likely, once or twice, but don’t particularly want to buy, to own. There’s no micro-payments infrastructure to enable this kind of transaction to occur. iTunes’ quid-a-track pricing policy doesn’t go far enough. I don’t want to winge but it’s not as if we haven’t had long enough to invent this. Back in 1991 we early Internet evangelists were plotting out how business models for online media consumption would work, but we’re just as far away from this as we were 13 years ago. And the only reason it’s not happened is because the major record companies were wedded to a particular business model — shipping large volumes of a small number of acts through a few retail channels. Micropayments were not and are not what they are set up for. So I don’t mind paying 10p or something every time I listen to Clocks by Coldplay, but I don’t want to spend a quid on it.

(Actually I probably will buy the ColdPlay records at some stage just for the convenience, especially when the new baby arrives and we need some soothing. But probably second hand… which again denies the artist, and the record company, their share… )

In other words, stuff I consume as MP3 is fairly likely to be stuff that I won’t buy on CD, because I just don’t want it that much, or otherwise, will be stuff that I would buy if I could (ragga jungle, for example) or will buy in different versions if I can (dancehall). Above all what I’m interested in is NOT merely the original record, but how a DJ uses it. There are never enough DJ mixes available, BTW.

3. The blogz featuring their top tracks of the day are focusing on showing off their taste and building their cultural capital by virtue of their selectivity. They benefit not from someone simply downloading the track they host or reading their words, but from the listener valuing the record. As a marketing professional I can see absolutely no distinction between this activity and market-seeding and sampling activity — which is, believe you me, fucking expensive to run. It is by far the most expensive communication activity there is on a cost per exposure basis. These boys are doing the job for free. This is particularly true of the kind of minor artists that these blogs tend to focus on — in fact they tend to deliberately try to promote the artists. What is in no doubt is that there is a world of difference between this sort of value-added, off-your-own bat, at-my-own-expense marketing and simply sharing a CD of tracks through your SoulSeek folder. If they really want to salve their conscience they should try and include a link to a record label store where you can buy the record. And try and do something with the webpage so people can’t just leach it / link to it as if they were hosting it.

In other words, the mp3-hosting bloggers look to me like they’re offering a good deal, but then I look at these things from an economic and business perspective rather than a moral one. If I was the marketing manager for the artists I’d be trying to cultivate these bloggers. Of course whether or not the artists themselves will even begin to understand the issue is another matter. I think that reducing the quality of the hosted tracks is a bit self-defeating personally but I suppose it’s a matter of taste.

4. The record industry — as in the conventional, major record industry — is in trouble but it’s not because of P2P to any significant degree, so far as I am aware. The record industry has two main problems. One is that in the west there are fewer young people with a lot of different products and services competing for their leisure time. When the Bay City Rollers were going, Space Invaders was just being launched. By 1995, video games turnover was bigger than music and arguably bigger than movies (the argument was nuanced for the Wired cover story). I can’t remember where the numbers are now, but the fact remains that recorded music has gone from being one of the two or three primary items of expenditure in the youth market to being one component among dozens (which is why the ITV chart includes radio airplay).

The second industry issue is piracy — serious, professional piracy, which mimics the record companies’ traditional modus operandi of pushing copies of the biggest-selling products. In particular, the markets where the youth market is growing fastest tend to have a lot of piracy.

According to the numbers I’ve seen, the measurable impact of filesharing on record sales has been minimal when compared to changing demographics and piracy. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t seem to be statistically significant in the overall scheme of things.

It is therefore impossible to sustain an argument about mp3s filesharing hurting the record companies because the economic evidence does not support it.

I’d be interested in any pointers to good research in this area, with proper numbers and academic review please, not just RIAA projections based on paranoia.

And I want to caveat this argument. It is possible that filesharing through the networks, rather thn via the blogz, might hurt independent record labels more than the majors. I’ve heard a few underground labels say they can’t cash in on healthy vinyl sales with a high margin CD compilation because they know their record will be pirated immediately and they won’t sell any. Thank god for vinyl. Just how serious this is I don’t know — I hope indie record fans aren’t pushing their favoured labels out of business.

4. Part of the value of mp3s is that they are digital, easily replicable, and therefore disposable on a personal basis. You can always chuck in the knowledge that you can probably pick ’em up again if you want them.

Compare and contrast with the humble JA seven. Poorly manufactured, slowly eroding to dust, impossible to back up without digitisation, but saturated with the patina of real humanity, precious due to both rarity and specialness, and you paid someone real money for it — most likely someone who is part of the scene. I am not against mp3s and I personally love the convenience (much better than CD — I want a big jukebox connected to my hifi) and I can deal with the sound quality. But I do NOT want OBJECTS to be supplanted by digitisation (leaving aside Terrence Mckenna’s arguments).

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