Thoughts on why the music downloading thing gets under people’s skin
“Sound Opinons” had another great podcast this week, an interview with Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails about the second coming of his career, now that he’s label-free and doing his own distribution, an experiment that’s been wildly successful. What Reznor’s been doing is releasing his music online, mostly for free or for consumer-determined prices. He’s made quite a bit of money off it, especially with incorporating strategies like Radiohead did of selling special edition hard copy versions over the internet. Reznor fully admits that this strategy really only works for people who are not only already established, but have a fanatic fan base that will drive album sales and basically do all the promotional work for you. Still, it’s a move in the right direction of really trying to cope with what the internet means for the music industry. It’s interesting in light of the news they report about the exponential growth sales of vinyl in the past couple of years. One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of brand new LPs come with a coupon to download the album for free.* Another response is the deep discounting of downloadable albums—I bought Grizzly Bear’s newest for $3 and today you can download The Gossip’s new album for $8 at Amazon. People want to have something to hold in their hands if they pay full price (which is one psychological reason that I think vinyl sales are going up, and certainly why I like vinyl—a lot less disposable than CDs).
What I found interesting was Reznor’s adamant, though humor-tinged insistence that there was something deeply fucked up about the battles over music downloading, particularly the adversarial relationship between the industry and fans that has only gotten uglier with the downloading lawsuits. Reznor’s point to artists was poignant in its simplicity—they don’t download music because they’re out to get you, they download because they love your music. I did think that statement was a little unfair to artists, though, since most are basically getting screwed over by the industry and are not the people behind the lawsuits. But he did touch on an emotional issue I think causes people to feel differently about music downloading than other kinds of minor stealing/scamming like shoplifting or getting the bouncer to let you in free to shows. People don’t feel the same about music like they do other products—as Reznor argues, they don’t think of it as product as all. It’s art.
Basically, the capitalist consumer model creates an adversarial relationship between corporations and consumers. For the corporation, the main clients are shareholders, and providing them maximized profit is the main mission. To do this, they must get the most money out of consumers while providing the lowest amount of service/product. In turn, the consumer wants to maximize what they can get for their dollar. I don’t think most people are particularly perturbed by this relationship when it comes to buying throw pillows or soda pop. But, like Reznor said, music doesn’t feel like product. Pop music in particular creates a relationship between the artist and the fan, and the adversarial model doesn’t really apply any more. Granted, there’s a lot of other art out there that people don’t resist paying for as much, like movies, but I don’t think going to see “Ironman” feels as intimate as music. Often, with movies, you’re paying for the experience of going to a show, and so far, I don’t think there’s any music fan revolt to paying for shows. But TV and books are already cheap to free, and music feels even more personal and intimate. It’s not just with the musician, either, as the ever-popular mix tape-turned-mix disc-turned mix tape blog post shows. For a long time now, fans at all levels treat music like it’s a collaborative project. Even someone who wouldn’t know the first thing about spinning at a real DJ stand or remixing music has probably experimented with skipping around to hear songs in the order they want.
Of course, musicians should get paid. But the reason that doesn’t come into the equation is that, outside of crocodile tears of the record industry, “getting paid” doesn’t come up much. There’s so many layers of people and bureaucracy between the consumer and the musician that buying the album doesn’t feel even close to tossing a dollar into the tip jar at the show. Again, this isn’t rational thinking, but just an emotional reality. The music industry subjects the fans—who experience music as an intimate, personal thing—to the depersonalized, adversarial corporate relationship. And that doesn’t feel right to them, so they feel justified in rejecting it. The internet just gave them the tools to do it.
The whole situation with the internet and the music industry actually has a lot of parallels to the relationship between the publishing industry and the internet. In both cases, there weren’t very serious attempts to monetize internet distribution until it was basically too late and everyone was bleeding money. But on the flip side, the way the internet breaks things wide open means that the little guys who were excluded from the aisles of power—often because they’re too innovative and interesting and they scare the powers that be—don’t have to go through the power brokers to get to an audience any more. The internet cacophony of noise is daunting, since it’s hard to stand out. But if you weren’t allowed to stand out in the first place, that can be very freeing. Certainly for an established artist like Reznor, internet distribution is incredibly freeing. He’s been doing some really great, interesting stuff, and it’s stuff that his record label was fighting against.
*You know how you start to get hungry when reading about food? Well, I have the same problem lately when I think about vinyl. Just writing this makes me want to roll over to the local record peddler and load up on some LPs. Hell, I might—used records are still the next best thing to free music.