The state of digital music (as I see it)

Several months ago I wrote an essay about how I thought Netflix could save music. Since then I’ve become a big believer in subscription music services. I chose Rdio because I liked the design, the social aspect and lack of ads. I honestly don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t use a subscription music service (MOG, Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio) instead of paying more and listening to less with iTunes. I’ve come down pretty hard on iTunes in essays and on Twitter. I fail see why we need it and how it’s good. In this so called ‘cloud’ age owning an mp3 has become redundant. While I’m skeptical of the cloud for personal data I think distributed media (music, movies) has found a perfect and profitable future in the cloud. Apple has introduced their version of cloud music called iCloud which will be released soon. My gut response is an immediate aversion. It seems better than the totally wasteful Google and Amazon cloud music offerings. The problem I foresee in iCloud is that it continues to coddle the antiquated consumer impulse to objectify music. While iTunes can claim they are helping artists earn money off of digital music it actually amounts to an enormous scam against both consumer and artist.

I am 100% for supporting the artist. To use iTunes as an argument for artist charity is delusional. An artist can sell directly on their website and collect 100% profit instead of paying the middleman. We are talking about the world wide web damnit. I’m more likely to buy when I know my money goes direct to the artist. With regards to subscription music I do see immense value for distribution. It’s interesting Apple won’t be jumping into music subscriptions as they are the most poised to popularise this very rational approach. But they won’t cannibalise their very expensive old-school approach to selling mp3s (in my opinion worthless collections of data).

Why I think Rdio’s social model is so important is because of the access it provides. It’s not just access to any impressively large library of music but it’s also access to a network of audiophiles interacting around common music tastes. Where Rdio is all about discovery iTunes leans more on traditional promotion. Discovery is much better for artists who are in need of a Music Publishing Contract so their work can speak for itself. Most interestingly on Rdio I’ve noticed that really good indie music tends to hold its own against pop juggernauts and in many cases does better. This could be a reflexion on the Rdio user base.

Music in a social network has other important implications. Many Twitter users seem to be aiming for and a few have actually attained a kind of social capital (influence). In a music social network gaining this kind of influence is actually more straightforward and less self-serving. The goal simply being to find great music from like-minded listeners; and possibly hope to find someone good enough to teach me how to play congas, for I’ve been searching for someone for long who can do that. I’m always looking for my next art pop fix and the people I follow represent leads for my addiction. I love discovering new, good music. There’s way too much music but nowhere near enough good music.

My positive experience with Rdio has convinced me that the success of the music economy (and the end of what they call piracy) lies exclusively with access, cloud and social. I’m so sure of this I won’t even bother elaborating and let the immediate future convince any skeptics. What I hope you will consider is that any digital music service that isn’t based on these three attributes is DOA. That’s right, Amazon and Google, have already failed in there forays into digital music. What absolute redundancy! Having people backup/duplicate music files that could simply be accessed in the cloud?

The Future

I’ll close and go back to the future and recount a social music experiment I participated in on Rdio. Although it is a social network it is surprisingly (and deliberately) difficult to communicate with people directly to ensure the network maintains its focus on music. The desire to communicate with other users is so strong that people create playlists and use them as forums where they communicate through comments. Someone started a forum where they devised an experiment to get as many people in the network as possible to listen to the terrible 1976 comedy album by Redd Foxx “You Better Wash Your Ass.” It was an effort to get popular artists such as Fleet Foxes and Adele bumped from the Rdio heavy rotation charts. I did my part and left the album on loop all night (on mute as it is pretty terrible). The experiment worked. The next day Redd Foxx’s album was the top album in Rdio’s heavy rotation.

From the comments on the forum it seemed that a few Rdio power users who’d participated were a little disillusioned with the experiment. Perhaps they felt a little used and aesthetically compromised (I felt a little like that). What I found incredibly interesting about the experiment was how it simultaneously revealed how powerful users are and how easily the social music system can be gamed. If/when subscription music goes mainstream we undoubtably will have to deal with major labels paying off listeners to exclusively play their releases to gain rankings. The algorithm will evolve as well hopefully in favor of the real user. Perhaps there will never be a totally fair music utopia but for the moment it’s nice to be part of a network where the good stuff, even when obscure, actually gets noticed.


  1. I think there is a hidden hazard to services like Rdio, as much as I love it.

    It wasn’t just the media/social buzz that the labels controlled.  It was the production and distribution.  Without a label fronting the $, you couldn’t get to a studio and produce a quality album.  And if you did, you couldn’t get it out to the public without the label connections to get it pressed and delivered.  

    The digital age has changed all that.  Now it’s very easy to record an album on your own, upload it to a site and get it out there for everyone to hear it.  So all that’s left is controlling the buzz and you are absolutely right that the labels will seek to manipulate that.  Or if not the labels, some “tastemaker” will emerge to seize control for a profit *ahem* hello, pitchfork?

    But what’s lost is that despite how stupid the old way was, we were all willing to go through it.  I used to go to the record store once or twice a week and drop $30-50 on music.  We all handmade mixtapes to share around.  Stuff like that.  It wasn’t just the money but also the effort.

    Nowadays, no one has to do that.  I think this is why you see artists now getting these 360 deals.  The music itself has little value.  It’s an ad or teaser for the artist “brand.”  It’s the concert tickets, video/movie tie-ins, merch sales, commercials and collector vinyl editions that create profit. We’re almost going back to the old studio days where actors are musicians and vice versa.

    I don’t want to think about how many CD’s I’ve bought in my life but I know it’s well in excess of 3k.  That’s $30,000 spent.  And it took me years to do it.  Much of it stuff I bought on faith alone, having never heard it.  And I got stung more often than not.  The average 21 year old hipster nowadays has that much on their hard drive or in their Rdio collection.

    Do I want people to have to spend massive amounts of money like I did?  No, of course not.  But I think the fact that I was willing to do so is important.

    People love to blame labels for the problems with the music industry.  I’m no fan of the labels myself.  But there are no record labels anymore.  They are all multimedia/electronics conglomerates.  Sony doesn’t care if they don’t make money on a record as long as you buy some Sony electronics.  Livenation owns the merch, the ticket sales, the venue, and the radio station, and sometimes even the artist management and promotion so if you illegally download the song, they don’t care (even if they pretend they do).

    So it’s tricky.  I don’t know that I have a real solution here.  But I do think that for the “music industry” (as opposed to the electronics/multimedia industry) to remain viable, people need to value the music itself.  There has to be a profit to be had just making the record– no tie-ins, no touring– just the song itself is good enough to stand on it’s own.  Or maybe we go back to the pre-recorded music days and it’s all about live performance and we’ll have traveling minstrels playing standard songs or even neighborhood hoedowns as opposed to valuing/relying on recorded performance.

    1. I really love this comment. It should be posted as a blog post somewhere
      in its own right because the points you raise really cut to the heart
      of it from a more personal, consumer’s perspective.

      I do miss the days when buying a CD really meant something and infused
      those songs with value. I personally don’t think those days are gone.
      There’s an undercurrent for fetishizing the vinyl record. What music is
      (nearly) missing these days is the object. Something to be physically
      collected and valued. Collected music has a much longer history than
      collected dvds. Our great grandparents collected music and they really
      valued it too. I think it’s really key for artists to continue to press
      vinyl and have that physical object for their music, even if it seems
      obsolete. It means they cared enough about their music to turn it into
      art, and I’ll treat it as such.

      About Rdio, I think you should consider that Rdio isn’t free. It’s
      $5-10/mo so that money does trickle down somewhere. Right now not enough
      people probably subscribe to music for it to make a huge dent. But if
      subscription for music becomes the norm I think the money that an artist
      gets per play may actually start to look like something. I put out an
      album in ’07 that I’ve basically forgotten about..yet I still get about
      $30/yr just from Spotify plays (not bad for a complete unknown with 0
      promotion on an abandoned project…honestly didn’t know it was on
      Spotify ’till I got the check).

      I think Rdio does put some of the effort back in. I really curate one of
      my playlists pretty hard. And it’s somehow had nearly 2000 listens, a
      few subscribers and some very nice comments.

      Thinking about the biz is a bit nauseating to me though. All that
      blatant promotion, live nation etc. It’s part of why I kind of have
      pushed music to the side. I never had a taste for the dog and pony show
      as it didn’t feel genuine for me. Saw way too many bands who were nobody
      and never were gonna be but deluded themselves into thinking they were
      the next big thing. That kind of undercurrent actually makes for some
      very bad music.

      I’m not sure if it’s because I know have access to so much stuff on Rdio
      or if something’s going on, but I’ve found that this year there have
      been quite a few really great album releases (much more than in recent
      memory). In my opinion it’s because of this dialectic that allows anyone
      to put out an album, so there’s so much stuff out there so the stuff
      that bubbles to the top has to be really good.

      For me it’s the access that’s most important to me. I just want to
      listen to whatever I want whenever and not debate with myself about
      spending .99-9.99 or whether I’m doing something illegal. It’s kind of
      an all or nothing situation. I subscribe I get it all. I unsubscribe, i
      walk away with nothing. But that’s ok. Unlike CDs or Vinyl, I don’t
      believe that purchasing an MP3 is legitimate. I also don’t believe I
      really ‘own’ the music I’m purchasing. I do own that piece of vinyl
      though. So if I’m never gonna own the music I’ll just pay to hear it.
      That’s good enough for me!

  2. Jason–finally got around to reading this article. I think you are dead on for most of your observations, and I agree with you for the most part. However, on the Redd Foxx Experiment I want to clarify. What upset a few (mostly me and Popsilly) was that someone created a number of dummy accounts and put the record on constant rotation, in effect rigging the system. I originally came up with the idea to put an obscure album in the HR (CAW came up with the album! Brilliant!) but pulled my support when the secret accounts were revealed. I thought we’d accidentally come up with a cheat that the unscrupulous sorts in the music industry (rife with unscrupulous sorts) could use to contaminate the site with inferior product. I also thought we’d violated Rdio’s fair use clause. I didn’t share Caw’s notion of Rdio being “the Man”–I view Rdio as an underdog in the race for a share of consumer’s ears–a dog I whole-heartedly support. 

    Your thread on Rdio about the state of digital music is the GO TO place for insightful communication on the subject. Thank you! 

    1. Thanks for that clarification about the Rdio rotation experiment Tod! I haven’t read Rdio’s terms of use but I’d imagine it’s nearly impossible to regulate unscrupulous system gamers. My inclination is to defend Rdio as the underdog to route for too due to a very positive experience with the service thus far. It seems very little is known about Rdio though. It hasn’t generated that much press and whoever runs it doesn’t seem that vocal (like some other social networks and subscription services). I’d like to know more about what they’re about. It feels like their philosophy aligns with mine but it would be cool to hear from them as to what they’re on about.

  3. your article is completely out of touch with reality. people don’t want to pay for subscription or for music in general. the days of corporate whores is finished. you don’t need anyone to sell or distribute your music. Also, the people who itunes are braindead morons who enjoy using a software with the user friendliness of a brick wall. Apple is singlehandedly destroying music with its awful itunes.

    i prefer drag and drop, its why you will never see me buying a crappy ipod or using itunes.

    you obviously have no clue about digital music.

    1. you’re either a bot or a troll (is there a difference). I don’t think you actually read the post. Not sure where you got the idea that I was pro-iTunes as I’m very much anti-iTunes.

      no idea what the hell you’re talking about with drag and drop. If you’re a real person I don’t think I even disagree with you about some music related things. But when you post comments be intelligent and constructive. Don’t be an idiot.

  4. Great post.  I’m one of the converts from iTunes, and while I’ll still purchase music if I deem it to be of value to me in the long run, I resort to Rdio for sampling and everyday listening.  I also love the community.

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