Caching Music, Cashing in for Music

This essay was published in the Aula Exposure Book. I’m proud to be in such good company!

It was long since I bought my last record. Actually, as far as I can recall, buying music over the last years was driven by my social rather than musical interests — either I bought the record of some artist who’s gig I just attended, or I might have bought a CD or an LP for somebody’s birthday just for the sake of being able to hand over something tangible.
Buying music for me, as the poor student I am, has become something special — something I do to gain social credibility in some context.

Caching music

In the meantime I’ve accumulated a rather large library of music files on my hard drive. But to call it a library actually gives the wrong impression — it works much more like a sort of cache. Since my Powerbook doesn’t have enough space on its hard drive, I am forced to constantly overlook this music “cache” so that it stays within its limits. As the cache is fed with new material, I have to consider what to delete in order to make space. This is a sort of evolutionary process where I review one track after another, trying to estimate a “track value”. I might think not only “Do I like this track?”, but also “Do I know anybody else who has it?” or “is it rare or not?” or “Did I make a considerable effort in acquiring it?” before “trimming the cache”. I also look at play counts — a low play count means “dead bytes”, but conversely a high play count might tell me I ought to delete the track to make way for some variation.

I’ve established a sort of client-server way of thinking about music consumption. All in all, it’s about accessibility; a track on the local drive is instantly available, while a track on my friend’s server takes a few minutes to download. If a track is not available there, file sharing networks will do the trick. Buying music seldom comes into question.

It happens that I backup music, but I never actually use those backups — mainly because it would probably take longer to find something there than to find it on Direct Connect. Actually, if I lost my machine today, I’d probably just start rebuilding the musical cache from scratch.

The death of the record collectors

Sadly, the powerful combination of love, nostalgia and hunter-gatherer instinct that drives many traditional record collectors, does not apply for digital. The love definitely gets a different, weaker character when there is no tangible object to love. Nostalgia suffers because digital is essentially timeless, anti-nostalgic. The hunter-gatherer instinct gradually evaporates as search engines evolve — it becomes clear that there is nothing left to hunt for. Hunting, which used to be exciting, is replaced by a not very dramatic “getting”.

The romantic era of the record collectors is over. Records stores are going. Instead most of us are transforming into overloaded, sloppy and half-enthusiastic musical consumers. We’ve forgotten about the bliss of ownership — at best we maintain well-sorted local nodes of the Great P2P Net, which is basically self-organizing anyway. On-demandness, always-onness and intangibleness naturally annihilates exclusiveness, intenseness and hapticness; but the latter are all highly valued properties of musical experience.

In short, the era of physically packaged music is over — and this affects our relationship to music in general. As a counter reaction, the packaging — the framing which is a presupposition for the emergence of value — desperately tries to find new forms. It is being artificially reconstructed; over empathized and broadened. A wall of hype and merchandise is built around a musical core that, at least in its digital form of today, looses market value the more you copy it.

Then why pay for music?

Now, I am not saying this development is unhealthy and ought to be stopped. I think most of the possibilities new technology bring for music are good. I think it’s the paradigm shift — the critical time when new values replace old ones — that hurts our feelings.

Still it’s a fact: neither me, nor my friends, have the money to pay the artists. It’s quite clear why; we already spent our cash on technology and communication. Computer manufacturers, telcos and ISP:s are getting the money we once gave to the music industry. But this might also be a subject to change. As infrastructure matures and storage resources saturates our needs, then the market will stagnate and we’ll again have cash for music.

But to get me to pay, there has to be something even better than the iTunes Music Store.
It’s hard to compete with file sharing apps today because of their simplicity — most searches are sub second and download times are short. It took me longer to find and download an Eminem album on the iTunes Store than it took me to get it off Direct Connect. And yes, there was cover art to go with it on DC too, plus I got some inspiration from browsing around the guy’s song library.

Now, if file sharing apps would implement the cache model and rareness indexing I’m currently emulating manually, so that songs I never play are purged automatically from my local node and downloaded again at will or automatically when their rareness indexes drops below critical, and if they could implement a way of auto-discovering other people with similar tastes by comparing my collection with theirs, it would make it even harder for commercial alternatives. Not to say if they’d come up with a cross-P2P search engine working on Google principles — “Yoodle”!

Cashing in

But, there are things you can only do with legal, DRM-enabled systems, and those things are definitely the ones that should be played upon by the providers.
For me, there are four key reasons for buying music instead of copying it. In short, it’s about karma, credibility, quality and community.

Karma is about feeling good by doing the right thing; to help poor artists and struggling labels by giving them my money. But before giving, I tend to estimate: how established/commercial is the artist/label? On the web, where I have the option of not paying, this estimation is crucial — and this means small artists/labels are more likely to get cash.

Credibility is the darker side of Karma — it’s my payoff for supporting the artist. It would be great if there was a way of leaving a note with my transaction saying “Hey guys, you rock!” followed by a link to my site. This would work especially well with smaller bands, where the number of buyers can be counted in hundreds. Reading these “oneliners” can be amusing and helpful, both for artists and fans.

Quality is something I would pay money for. If I could get a 96KHz/24Bit/512Kbs version of a track I would pay more. I’d also pay more for an album if there were additional value adds such as exclusive interviews, videos, interactive content, liner notes, PDF covers and so on. Being able to get multiple formats of a track on demand would be useful, especially when network infrastructure matures (listen.com are currently working on an audio streaming service for 3G).

Community — If there was a way of establishing a more intimate relation between me, the artist and other fans, I’d be interested. What if I got access to a special community site when I bought an album? I’d be able to ask questions, get access to musical raw material so that I could experiment with remixes, get exclusive previews and offers. In general, the intangibleness, anonymousness and isolatedness of digital has to be tackled.

What the future holds

There are numerous proposed ways of dealing with the dilemma the music industry is now facing, ranging from ultra strict DRM to ISPs-as-distributors to pay-by-default to tax-driven models. There is not one solution in sight, and I hope it stays that way. It would be wonderful if all these systems could coexist. After all, each of these models have their own problems, and they’ll probably all get hacked and tweaked as we go.

In the meantime, I’ll keep on caching music,
cashing in
from record sales and hopefully I’ll be able to spend some cash on good music as soon as there is a decent way of doing so…