Possession Vs. Ownership
This piece is the first in an ongoing series of writing, largely titled: "Music & Listening, Fast and Slow."
I've been a subscriber to the music service Rdio for about six months. You're probably familiar with the rough pricing model of these companies: for $10 a month I get unlimited music streaming on any of my devices from a vast and constantly updating library of albums. Additionally, I can download and cache music to my devices if I know I'm going to be away from wifi/3G for a while. Since I've signed up, the service has been fantastic, I couldn't be happier.
Prior to that I was a fairly consistent, but judicious music purchaser. Every week I would check out the new music releases on iTunes, etc. and see if there were albums I was interested in. I would then listen to previews and weigh whether I wanted to drop actual money on the songs. I was sometimes buying 2-3 new albums a month (digitally or physically, whichever was cheaper) totaling around $20 -$30 a month. A significant amount, but for the most part I considered it my way of supporting artists I really enjoyed (at least as much as buying albums truly supports the artist).
Today however, put into sharp relief how much my approach to digital music has changed since I joined Rdio. I opened up twitter this morning and saw people talking about the new Avett Brothers album and the new album by The XX. I'm a fan of both of those bands, the Avett Brothers especially. I own their previous albums, I've bought merch from them. Under normal conditions I would have dropped the cash and bought those albums. But today I instead jumped over to Rdio and its "New Releases" section. I see this right at the top:
Boom. There's the two albums I want and two more albums that upon seeing them, I am interested in. I'm also a fan of past Raveonettes' albums and while Dave Matthews Band's last two albums weren't really up my alley, I'm always interested to see if they could make another album I'd like. I add them to my "Rdio collection" and in one click I'm already listening to The Avett Brothers. So for $10 this month, I've (at the very least) gotten the value of being able to listen and download four albums. I, for all intents and purposes, "own" this music. I may not "possess" a physical copy, but the difference between "owning" and "possessing" is so slight, it doesn't matter. To possess this music, I would have to pay per album. I jumped over to iTunes to see how much these four albums would cost:
It's roughly $40 to "possess" these albums... and that's without a physical copy. Where has the appeal of possession gone? Well, right here is the record industry's problem. Music is an art. Like the vibrating colors in a Rothko painting or watching someone dance, the value is defined by the one that consumes it. Owning a picture of a Rothko painting or a video of a dance is essentially free, but may be very dear and valuable to me. Albums are the same. John Mayer's "Continuum" will always be tied to my freshman year of college, much like Dave Matthews Band's "Under The Table And Dreaming" is tied to college-goers years before me. We will buy the merch, go to those concerts, and reminisce with our friends about that album because it is tied to us on a level beyond price or possession. That is something a record company cannot control with price drops or better promotion.
Now this obviously leaves the artist in a predicament. In truth, they don't need the label, they just need the talent and the content. That's a lot, but its something they're already doing. The modern artist does have to become more than they once were, but so does the fan. As fans of a band or artist, we are the promotion and the funding. A tweet or facebook status saying, "____'s album is great! Go listen!" holds more ability to create action than a "New Release" list or even the BillBoard Hot 100 does. Buying merch, the vinyl pressing, or a concert ticket holds more weight than the album does in keeping the artist around financially.
So where does Rdio (and other streaming music services) fit in all of this? Well, in my eyes, these services aren't like iTunes anymore, they're like libraries or museums. Rdio holds the best collection of modern musical art you could ever find. A person can pay the monthly membership and can explore all of the musical "exhibits." They take the feeling and connection to those pieces of art with them into the world where they live and can make something new. When the barrier between someone and an artist is a click away, the chance for that artist to connect with them on a fundamental, memorable level is the highest it's ever been. That type of connection is what creates a fan base that can sustain an artist, labels be damned. Universal ownership through services like Rdio, let everyone experience an artist's work and have a chance to make that connection... and that's not going to kill the artists or the fan base, it's going to amplify them.
In the next installment of the "Music & Listening" series, I'll explore the flipside of this argument, the concept of in-person music discovery, and the value of slow-listening in "The Vinyl Cut."