liv: A woman with a long plait drinks a cup of tea (teapot)
[personal profile] liv
I just bought my 1000th song in mp3 format (Vienna Teng's Whatever you want). This seems a good excuse to talk about buying digital music.

I didn't really start buying music until 2007, because that was when it started to become possible to buy legitimate single individual tracks without either DRM or massive hassle, for a reasonable price. At that point it was still a bit of a pain; I joined the emusic site, which has done me very well but has some drawbacks. You have to sign up to the site, you can't just buy one-off tracks. And you have to pay a monthly subscription, which doesn't roll over, so although the official price per track is pretty low, you end up paying more than that unless you're incredibly organized about making sure you finish each month's allowance (which I'm not!) It was still worth it to me so that I could get DRM-free versions of commercially released songs. The alternatives at the time were iTunes which sold you music you could only use on the same computer where you made the payment (and what on earth is the point of that?!), Napster where you paid a subscription to listen to music but didn't actually own it, and various greymarket or outright illegal Russian sites. There were other DRM-free sites, but they were also effectively self-publishing outfits, they were selling music by quasi-amateur musicians who hadn't signed contracts yet and needed exposure even more than they needed money. Nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to buy music that I'd actually heard of as well.

For the ten years before that, I didn't buy digital music at all, because only these inferior alternatives were available. In fact, when I first got online in 1997 you couldn't legitimately buy music online even with DRM. If you wanted to own music at all, you had to buy a CD, usually paying £12 to £15 for the whole album even if you only wanted one track. And you had to take on the responsibility of storing and transporting the CD, which was not a small thing when I was moving across the country 6 times a year. Even since graduation I've moved from England to Scotland, from Scotland back to England, nearly moved to Australia but had to cancel at the last minute, moved from England to Sweden at short notice, from Sweden back to England, and across the country. That's not unusual for my peers; indeed I'd say that I've had more of a settled life than many of my friends, staying in the same place for three years at a stretch. The fact that I've been able to keep any of my possessions at all is mainly because I have parents who have a big house and a lot of generosity, so they were able to look after things temporarily while I was moving. When you take into account the fact CDs have a limited shelf life, digital music made a lot more sense, but it just wasn't (legally) available.

There was a huge, thriving black market for mp3s back in the late 90s, and yet nobody seemed to see this as a commercial opportunity. I would gladly have paid for legal mp3s if they had existed, and I was in no way alone among my friends, even students who had fairly limited incomes. Instead I ended up scouring the internet for contraband (AltaVista is, to this day, the best search engine for finding individual tracks; Google has never overtaken it because it assumes you're looking for information, and routinely discards pages that are just catalogues of available files). I joined in schemes that were the precursors to today's torrenting and peer-to-peer networks: FTP based systems where you uploaded a desired track and in return got a password that allowed you to download what was already there. Some of my music I acquired because college was one giant network. We were the very narrow generation who had completely unmonitored T1 ethernet, which was used for a lot of LAN gaming and other distinctly non-academic purposes. It was the culture that you made your music folder available to the whole college network, and people helped themselves to any music they liked the sound of.

Thing is, you might imagine that music labels (and consequently artists) lost a ton of money due to this sort of behaviour. In fact the situation is quite the contrary; the very minute that it was possible to buy this music legally, I couldn't wait to give them my money for music that had a special place in my heart since it was the soundtrack to such a formative part of my life. But it took ten years for said labels to grudgingly allow me to give them money.

The situation isn't a lot better nowadays. Apple, bless em, finally jumped onto the mp3 bandwagon; once the iPod became a fashion item, everybody started making portable mp3 players, and phones which double as mp3 players, and there's clearly a market to buy actual music to put on them. But a lot of the major labels are still insisting on DRM'd music only, which means you often can't buy it at all outside the US (even without considering the multiple other disadvantages of DRM). And you have to download some software which only works on one or two OSs, so if you have anything non-mainstream or just old you're out of luck. So here I am, still pirating music, because the copyright holders simply refuse to sell me what I want, at any price at all, let alone a reasonable one. I pirate a lot less now; I'm reasonably happy to buy just whatever is available in mp3 format, and do without stuff that isn't. But there are some songs I really like that are still, even today, simply not available legally at all.

How do I choose what to buy? Well, I get recommendations from friends, often sub-legally since you're not technically allowed to give your friend a copy of music so they can get into it too. Of course this is exactly like the whole 80s thing where "home taping [was] killing music"; in fact, most of us discovered new groups which we spent money on because our friends made mixtapes for us. ([livejournal.com profile] doseybat has been a huge, lifelong influence on my musical tastes and probably caused hundreds of pounds to flow from my bank account towards the artists she recommended to me when we were teenagers.) And I use various internet services that point to music that has something in common with what you already like. Back in the 90s it was Yahoo radio where you could make custom stations, and they weren't bad for music discovery. Nowadays it's Last.fm and the wonderful Pandora music genome. Of course, the music industry goes to huge lengths to restrict these services, making them available only in the US (unless you use hacks and cheats to get round their restrictions). Because in the US they can put pressure on the courts and the legislature to make providers of such services pay exorbitant fees to run them at all, eventually driving them offline because just to cover their costs they have to charge more than consumers are prepared to pay.

I've come to the conclusion that the music industry don't actually want people like me to spend more money on music, which you'd think would be in their interests. No, they want the musical tastes of the public to be completely predictable and ideally entirely dictated by the companies that own the music. They want to make sure that nobody ever discovers a new artist except by listening to mainstream commercial radio, and nobody ever buys any music except from distributors which only really stock the same songs that show up on those highly controlled radio channels. Never mind the long tail, never mind the convenience of an entirely digital distribution chain, they want to know exactly which artists they should sign because consumers can spend money only on the artists that they have chosen to back. They're using mechanisms like DRM, like really disproportionate reaction to copyright infringement and "file sharing", like closing down music discovery services and removing fanvids from YouTube, not to protect copyright as they claim, but to make the music market predictable.

This is pretty grim for actual musicians, and not that promising for consumers. I'm just hoping that capitalism will prevail, and the desire of millions of people like me to find a way to spend money on music we like, in convenient format, will create enough of a demand that the market will act to fill it. There are traces of it; the fact that it's even possible to buy plain mp3s from mainstream distributors like Amazon and iTunes is a promising sign. But it is very weird to find myself in the position of being almost forced to steal things because nobody will sell me them!
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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