About two weeks ago Steve Jobs, influential CEO of Apple Inc., did a rare thing. He issued a lengthy formal statement entitled "Thoughts On Music." It was a lightening rod document, drawing criticism and praise from pop culture pundits, recording industry spokespeople, and even lawmakers of European Union nations. This was unsurprising given that a pending EU lawsuit could force Apple to adopt a common DRM (Digital Rights Management) song file format with competing companies like Microsoft, Sony and others. In other words, Apple would have to make their iTunes Music Store play nice with music players that compete with the industry-dominating iPod, losing some of their competitive edge in the retail digital music sector. While these thoughts on music are worth debating, I think to the human population at large, they are irrelevant.
Indeed, even a bear like me, who enjoys listening to music, creating music, and distributing music digitally in the form of a 'podcast' is nonplussed by the hullabaloo. But perhaps my animal instincts afford me a rare, and more simplistic view of why this digital music topic hits a nerve.
In fact, I'm going to be so bold (as bears can be) to say I've solved the riddle of the digital music revolution. The problem is simple, so I think the solution should be too. This talk of DRMs or no DRMs is just confusing.
The Problem: I know what it is first hand. Humans have gone past wanting free music. Today they expect free music. I know this because I make music and give it away, for free, via a podcast. Not a single human has asked 'why would you do such a thing?' Not a soul has said anything like, "I'm really enjoying this, may I pay you for it." To the contrary, listeners have commented "more, more, more!" (Now to be clear, I take this as a compliment. I understand they are saying that because they like what they hear.)
Going further, I have noticed a common theme. Almost every album in the last five years, from every recording artist of marginal fame to mass-appeal has been leaked to file sharing networks weeks or months in advance of their release dates. The filesharing vehicle of choice today, Bit Torrent, is an extremely easy to use, generally reliable, and anonymous means of replication and acquisition. On the heels of that, an even simpler and faster method is the familiar drag and drop of data across local networks and digital devices. The infamous RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), a lobbying group for the 'big four' Major labels and several independents has tried to combat this with enforcement techniques and this DRM nonsense. They are obviously in denial that this shift is permanent. Sure, the legendary Napster, once painted as the Saddam Hussein of copyright infringement, has been co-opted and refashioned as a legitimate, albeit struggling business model. But from its renegade ashes a much easier to use and harder to take down entity arose with Bit Torrent. If they ever manage to finger Bit Torrent, you can be sure something else will take its place. It's become as pointless as prohibition was in the 20s.
Humans aged 10 to 30, predominately in households with broadband Internet access, all over the world expect free music. They've been conditioned. iTunes, Rhapsody, eMusic, Napster, etc. are all welcome and good innovations, and there is certainly a large portion of this population that continues to pay for recorded music at both brick and mortar retail and digital purchase points. But the devaluation of recorded music will continue in a correlative arc to the increasing number of humans who are afforded broadband Internet access and digital music devices. It's that simple. So what do we do?
Give it to them.
The beauty of my solution is its simplicity and practicality. The business model I propose is historically proven to produce art of timeless value and compensate the artists with living wages. But before I get deep into that, let me also describe another phenomenon I've noticed.
Not entirely coincidentally, the evolution of digital technologies that have made it easy obtain a copy of the new Radiohead album two months prior to its release date have also made it easier for humans to avoid the mass marketing campaigns designed to sell such albums, among other things. Tivo has given the television advertising industry many a sleepless night recently. Likewise commercial-free Satellite Radio networks are getting more subscribers defecting from commercial FM radio audiences. The Internet, with numerous forms of free news and entertainment on-demand is claiming eyes and ears typically sedated by the boob-tube. Local network news stations are engaged in a stupefying race to hybridize their news delivery by driving viewers to their companion websites before TV news completely tanks in the ratings. A daily segment from a local affiliate screens the 'most popular' inane video clip traversing the internet via email, and social networking sites that day with the tag line, "you can watch the rest at our website."
The point of this is, humans not only expect free music, they have shorter attention spans, and their intolerance for advertising is growing. Like the demand for free music, this intolerance of traditional advertising will grow correlative to the number of humans afforded broadband Internet and modern digital media devices like Tivo and satellite radio. What to do?
Again, give it to them. Give them unobtrusive advertisements.
Now, if you can accept that what I have said is more or less an accurate portrayal of the problem, consider the simplicity of my solution: Give the people what they want. I'm sure I'm not the first to propose this, but it's a notion so simple perhaps only a seven year old, or a bear would dare to say it.
And before you call me a dreamer, or a music industry anarchist, hear me out. My idea is not only simple, it's democratic and capitalist. And here's the kicker: We have the technology! In fact teenagers have this technology right now, on their computers. It was this generation that got us into this pickle, and I dare say it will be this generation that gets us out.
Only recently in the history of music and mankind have songs become commodities. The only way a person could copy a song in the Middle Ages, for example, was to learn the melody, and replicate it with an instrument or the human voice. A tedious and inaccurate process, by modern standards. Historians attribute the invention of the printing press to the significance of authorship, or as we now know it, copyright. Before that, songs, books, even paintings were considered public domain. From ancient times through the renaissance, art was created under a patronage system. The rulers and elites would advance their political and religious agendas, as well as increase their prestige by hiring artists to create art, architecture, and not least, music. Art was held up in cultural-civic interest, and aside from being aesthetically and technically pleasing to the senses, it generally conveyed some sort of message either overtly (in pictures) or more subtly, as symbols of power, benevolence, abundance, and cultural superiority (typical messages leaders would have you believe about them). Fast forward through wax cylinders, phonographic records, 8-track tapes, cassettes, and CDs, and you get to this moment in musical history, where it would almost seem there is some deep-seated instinct -- a gene perhaps -- signaling the collective conscious that music should be public domain again. Authorship is still important, if not more important than ever, but there is some kind of undoing of the printing press effect, wherein the power of the Internet is being harnessed to disrupt the past centuries of music power structures. Commercial Radio Conglomerates and the consolidation of the recording industry into the 'Big Four', are viewed as suspect arbiters of culture and art. Fat cats. Hence, teenagers 'stick it to the man' with unabashed pirating. What to do?
Okay then, are you ready? Here is the new-media, new-market digital music revolution solution: Patronage. If it worked in the Renaissance, it can work today. Just swap marble sculptures and chapel ceilings for songs. Today's Internet is really, really good at distributing songs. If song downloads were sponsored by companies, institutions, and individuals willing to pay competitive market rates to use them as carriers of their subtle, unobtrusive advertising messages, why bother to charge the users for possessing them? Let them have their free music.
What will it look like? My revolutionary prototype looks and behaves nearly exactly like the songs humans have been interacting with on their computers and iPods for five years now. They are still compressed audio files (The open version of Apple's popular AAC format, roughly 10 times smaller in bytes than the dying CD standard). The point at which it differs is relatively miniscule: Instead of the attached album artwork, the premiere downloadable version of this song would feature an ad image replacing the album art. That's it. Too simple right?
The concept of the song as a vehicle for mass marketing has been around as long as humans have been writing lyrics. Hymns, for example, mass-market the virtues of a Judeo Christian ideology. Every religion, every ideology uses songs as carriers of an agenda. Advertisers rediscovered the power of the song with jingles and hooks in the golden age of radio, implanting brand loyalty with melodic refrains. While that just won't play anymore (Jingles definitely do not qualify as unobtrusive) the attachment of a static, web-banner-like image to a song is, I would argue, tolerable to the listener and effective in ways traditional forms of advertising aren't.
The upswing in the convergence of audio playback and TFT-LCD displays in personal digital devices like iPods and cell phones, and the ability of applications like iTunes to display (even to locate and attach album art to pirated song files) has created an audio-visual platform that advertisers have been looking for: it's personal, tailored, reinforcing, and on-demand. If only a portion of the revenue stream from dwindling television and radio campaigns in the coming years is diverted to musicians as patronage dues, I dare say musicians would likely earn more than they do major label contract royalties. And get this: they'd earn it before the album was even released (not a year later, or never, as is typical)!
I can hear some of you grumbling. You're saying:
"Wait a second. You don't have to look at the album art in iTunes. You can close the little window. Likewise you can put your video iPod in your pocket. Advertisers want to know their ads are being looked at, right?"
It's true you don't have to look at the album art in media library applications, but the trend is to make these features more pronounced (Cover Flow, Front Row, Cover flow on the iPhone). What this form of advertisement lacks in size (it's a far cry from a billboard) and sensory onslaught (I think we all agree the 10 decibel gain on TV commercial segments is just cause for Tivo retribution) it makes up for in super-multiple, residual views/listens. Humans will listen to their favorite songs tens, even hundreds of times. As digital devices evolve, screens will become bigger, brighter, cheaper, and more portable, they will be in our pockets, our cars, our living rooms, kitchens and offices. Wait, they are already in some households. In the future avoiding images attached to songs will be less and less an option.
"But you can even manually remove and assign album art to songs in applications like iTunes. People would just remove the ads and keep the songs."
It's true you can manually attach and remove album art to songs in iTunes. Like I said, we have the technology. Teenagers have the technology. But not everyone knows that like iTunes, Apple has also written a free, downloadable application called Chapter Tool for independent media publishers to enhance their pod casts. With Chapter Tool, or the Mac-bundled application Garageband, it's a cinch to 'drag and drop' an image to be embedded in the audio file in a way that a user cannot manually remove it. One can also add a url to the image making it perform as a hyperlink in iTunes, just like a web banner ad. (Having said that, undoubtedly someone will invent a tool to remove these kinds of images from songs, but most people, I reckon, won't be bothered enough to do it. Particularly if they got the song for free.)
"How could you propose divorcing classic album art from the song files? Is nothing sacrosanct?"
I'm not proposing undoing anything that's already been done. Applications like iTunes and music download retailers will continue to grow in functionality and popularity. I'm not proposing that when the Beatles finally make their fashionably late entrance to the download party "Help!" be accompanied by an insurance company logo. What I am suggesting is the time period (the month preceding the release of an album) that is now taken up by a frenzy of file-sharing -- resulting in lost sales -- simply be decriminalized (see, that word sounds way too severe doesn't it? Humans don't really find it criminal.) Instead, the recording industry can take a cue from both the publishing and TV world by releasing an album song by song -- to build a steady stream of anticipation -- with each song bearing a patron's seal. Patron's Seal. Can I copyright that? It's easy to swallow right? Basically this 'Patrons Seal' would be an ad, or logo in place of album art. These patrons would obviously pay more for the most popular recording artists the same way Patrons paid more handsomely for the Michelangelo and DaVinci's of the past. A system not unlike online banner advertisements could be easily configured to provide stats and metrics for the keen song patron. Then, after this month-long sponsored engagement, the tracks (higher quality versions, likely) could be sold ad-free (with proper album art, bonus songs, bonus videos, etc.) on iTunes, etc. and as CDs in retail stores. There will always be late-comers, quality purists, and the uninitiated who will happily pay for music, just like there will forever be those who expect not to.
As I said, it's the teenagers that got us here, and it's the teenagers that can get us out. I don't really expect the CEO of Universal or WEA to take this bear seriously. I wouldn't be surprised if even 'think different' Steve Jobs writes brushed my ideas off. Most complex, big multi-national corporations are not by nature quick on their feet, or particularly innovative. But teenagers can start now by making music and promoting it with concerts and on the Internet. They can, like I have, choose to release their music freely hoping to reach more people in less time, and should they find themselves in possession of a small audience they can begin soliciting for patrons. (Or if they are particularly persuasive, the audience is not even required!) With these first patrons -- Aunt Agnes? Paola's Pizza? -- they can fund promotional CD pressings, or guitar amps, or a tour van or whatever it is they need to keep going. Meanwhile, their friends who really don't want to pay to listen to their music on their iPods don't have to. Is that not at least close to teenage utopia?
To put my new-media, new-market digital music revolution solution to the test, I'm going to try and implement my strategy on my own. Me, little Podington Bear. Beginning today I will be soliciting patrons for my songs beginning in March. To both keep it realistic and avoid being called a sell-out I am accepting individuals and small businesses as patrons for the month of March. The fees are sliding scale, but to cover my expenses (I will be manufacturing a promotional CD) I am asking for $100 per song from individuals, and $200 for business sponsorships. I welcome your participation, dear reader! Yes you! Individuals may, for example, attach a picture of their baby, or dog, or motorcycle and some text to my song or... the sky's the limit. Likewise businesses may simply submit their logo and url link, or a napkin drawing, or stock photography. For more on this pitch, including stats and photo illustrations you can download this handy PDF. I'm just the court musician.