On the transformation of everyday culture in an era of liquid modernity

Faith in the commercial single? No more

In everyday life, media ecology, mp3, music on October 30, 2008 at 10:41 am

When physical CD singles are available no more – what moral quandaries does that put us in, as music fans?

Popjustice recently adressed the dilemmas facing the contemporary music consumer who loves songs – that is, individual tracks, not albums – and the novelty, galore and fascination of hits. When faced with the fact that new music is only commercially available in lossy, intangible and non-lasting formats, what position does that put us in as consumers – if owning a decent copy of the song itself is what interests us?

Off the top of our heads, here are some things that spring to mind on this topic.

» What constitutes ‘owning’ a song?

» If you can’t see or hold something is it worth spending money on?

» Does that question alter if what you’re spending money on is something you only intend to listen to?

» If you cannot legally buy something, are you somehow entitled to illegally download it?

» Is it alright to illegally download a song in order to punish a label for not making it legally available sooner/legally available in higher quality download/legally available as a CD single?

» If you illegally download a song for any of the above reasons, do you consider the direct impact this has on what the artist and label will be able to produce in the future?

» Should stores like HMV and Zavvi, which built their business on music sales, cater for minority buyers out of some sort of loyalty?

» Is 79p for a song better value than £1.99 for a CD single containing the song you want and the song you don’t want?

» What sort of price would you put on being able to listen to a song as often as you like, forever?

» How frequently do you listen to CD singles you purchased six years ago, or take them off the shelf or out of the cupboard to admire their beautiful packaging?

» Can anything be done to re-educate an entire generation who’ve grown up with music being ‘free’?

Apart from the very last question, the one that asks If you cannot legally buy something, are you somehow entitled to illegally download it? is particularly interesting. Say if a brand new song is only commercially available as a lossy, copy protected (DRM-damaged) 192 kbps file. Higher quality copies are nowhere to be found. What does the higher-quality 320 kbps file circulating on SoulSeek, or posted on an mp3 blog, then constitute? Are these to be seen as rival goods? If the former, lossy commercial file is not adequate for archiving, let alone playing on a decent sound system (ask a DJ) – what other option is there for a music fan who intends to do the artist a service by circulating, archiving and actually paying attention to his/her material?
Understandably, this leads the music fan to thoughts like the ones above, and indeed a moral sentiment that seriously considers the music industry as a target to be “punished” by those who would otherwise be its customers. And the already-existing rift is further deepened. For the active, productive consumer such moral sentiments foster a mindset of antipathy against the existing commercial services, and encourage the use of tools, metadata, and indexes to create alternative services, most of which are technically superior to the existing ones. Now, this is a bigger problem for the industry than the occasional, isolated illegal consumption of already-exhausted material. People who seed new compilations, facilitate new platforms, create and index better metadata are seen as the bigger threat: they provide services that in fact outdo the flagging ones of the industry. Especially when these newer platforms are entirely congruent with the ethos of ‘free’ that the younger generations are native to. How do you compete with that?

This posting is part of a series on the materiality and morality of music in the digital era. See here and here for previous entries.

  1. […] we can already conclude that the last ten years have seen the partial death of the album, the definitive death of the CD single, the rebirth of the individual song, an increase in the sheer loudness of music (“loudness […]

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