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May 01, 2003

The Digital Follies

I made the mistake of going into a Fye store the other day to ask if they had a ska section. The overweight and entirely too sweaty assistant manager made a point of looking down his nose at me before informing me that ska was "over like 5 years ago."

I considered this for a moment, and then asked him if he knew where the Donny and Marie Osmond albums were. He ponderously led me to them, indicating them with a sniff and derisive wave of his hands.

"Thanks," I said, "Just checking," and left him there, all a-quiver.

He didn't have what I wanted, and he was an ass about it, so I went elsewhere. And although he certainly didn't realize it, he didn't lose my business. After all, it's very hard to lose what you never had in the first place. I wanted a ska section that I could paw through in search of something new or to find a band I had never heard of. Not to buy, but to search for on Kazaa later. I'll be damned if I'm going to spend money on something I've never heard of.

But I'll happily download it. I can find all sorts of new stuff just by typing generic terms into the Kazaa search engine. It's the equivalent of pawing through Fye's non-existent ska section, not to mention all the other ones.

I'm the reason why a buck a tune is going to fail. Me, and people like me, which is most everyone. If you doubt me, take a look at the Gnutella meter. While there are a few specific searches, the vast majority are those that will produce multiple results. People aren't searching for specific songs, they're trawling for music, downloading dozens of tunes.

And there in a nutshell is the record companys' problem. People will download all sorts of crap for free, just to see if a nugget or two of gold can be gleaned out of the megabits of dross in their download folders. There's no way they will do that at a buck a tune, or 18 cents a tune, or even a nickel a tune. They'll just stay with Kazaa, or Gnutella. They might pan for music at a penny a tune, but anything higher than that is unlikely. Very few people are willing to pay for music that they haven't heard.

Take Floetry, for example. I don't care how good the reviews are, I'm a middle aged white guy, and I ain't paying 99 cents for a Floetry song I've never listened to, and since NPR isn't likely to put them in heavy rotation, I'm not likely to hear them anytime soon. What I can do is download a couple of their tunes, or a dozen, since that's just as easy, and stick them into my 30 gigabyte jukebox, where they'll get played randomly for the next month or so. Eventually I'll decide I like them and maybe buy a cd, or I'll delete them. Hard drive space is still finite, after all, and having to advance through a song that's disliked is a pain in the buttocks. I might not buy a cd, but just having their songs on my hard drive increases the chance that I will. It may be a small chance, but it's more likely than it was previously, when it was no chance at all. It's happened before; I own three Pizzicato Five albums because of Napster.

And where will I buy that cd? Let's see here. I can buy Floetic right now at ebay for $8.50. There's 16 tracks on that cd, which means each track costs me.......53 cents, and there are copies cheaper than that at Amazon. Or I can pay the Apple music store sixteen dollars for it, plus another buck for a cd to burn the songs to.

Now, why exactly would I do that?

The problem with the Apple music store, and all of the other digital music initiatives, is that the only thing they are selling is digital music files, and people can get those for free. If someone wants to make money off of digital music, then they need to use it to sell things that can't be digitized. The two most common non-digital things usually mentioned are concerts and t-shirts, and record execs dismiss those with same short-sighted sniff and wave I got at Fye. They're selling music, dammit, not fripperies. But there are other non-digital things that people will pay for, like membership and convenience, as anyone at Emusic can tell you. There are bound to be others, business plans that use digital music file as come-ons, or as additional value. The companies that develop them will rule the music world ten years from now, and labels like Universal will be as dead as Apple Records.

Posted by Bigwig at May 1, 2003 04:20 PM | TrackBack
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