Digital delivery = hope for diversity in music

As usual, I was thinking about music the other day, specifically about how so few artists receive airplay on radio. Although the statistics I have read are often contradictory, misleading, or biased in favor of propaganda from many sources; it is clear that the overall trend is towards greater ownership of media by ever-larger companies, with fewer “approved” artists receiving airplay.

It’s not really a ground-breaking concept. Commercial radio has been searching for a near-mythical perfect model of airplay for decades now– one awful scheme involved a series of colored lights which told DJs when to play certain cuts, and of course, today’s automated “Jack” stations are thoroughly researched beforehand to not only provide a sterile simulacrum of “shuffle mode,” but to milk those well-known singles to the last drop.Outside the tiny world of community radio, it seems that diversity is being strangled to death, curb-stomped, and memory-holed for good measure. Here in Southern Illinois, I am still somewhat surprised to note that neither of our two large malls feature any kind of music store– not even a bland Sam Goody. For the approximately 300,000 people comprising Southern Illinois, only Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and two local-owned music stores exist. Three of these are located in a single town.

Unless these meager offerings suffice (a frightening proposition!) it seems that these 300,000 folks are getting their music elsewhere– almost certainly online.

As we all know, pretty much anything is available online if you look. The trouble, though, is an old one. Just like visiting a well-stocked record store filled with unfamiliar artists, it can be difficult to guess what you’d enjoy without knowing something about it first– and as I’ve mentioned many times in a frustrated situation, cover art is no help. Your brick-and-mortar stores compounded this problem with dreadful amounts of shrink-wrap, plastic security doo-dads, or stocking discs behind the counter. Let’s face it, though, digital sales of music can often be the ultimate in shrink wrap. There’s no chance of getting a knowledgeable clerk, and all you can see is what the seller wants you to see.

In this way, it’s no big leap to guess that digital sales of music are going to be for things people already know… bringing us back to radio. Less decent airplay means less things people know about. Set this aside for a minute, and we’ll pick it up later.

Now consider the p2p world. If you’ve just heard the hot new single on radio, and you want to hear it again, it’s often easier to grab it from off a filesharing site than it is to hoof yourself down to the store– especially if 75% of the music stores aren’t even in your town, as in my Southern Illinois example above. (And for me, there are ZERO music stores in my town, unless you count the cassette tape rack at the gas station.)

So now our hypothetical radio listener has downloaded the latest single. It’s probably the best choice anyway, seeing as how the rest of the full album is most likely filler, and it saves gas against making a trip three towns over. The second-most likely scenario is that our listener has a strong sense of personal morality, and a few free bucks on a credit card; so she purchases the track through the iTunes store.

I can hear you now: “But wait, DaveX, didn’t you say digital delivery was a hope for diversity in music?” Yes I did! Think about it just a bit more– the commercial radio format is essentially limiting the possible sales of our listener’s digital music to the things they play. As radio’s offering narrow, so does her knowledge of music. iTunes becomes an unwieldy dinosaur, playing against the odds that listeners will pay for this paucity of music rather than simply download it. As the amount of popular music decreases to a few superstars, the ability of p2p networks to successfully distribute it increases dramatically… the system is not sustainable.

In a world of p2p, where even the previous couple generations are becoming reasonably comfortable with downloading music and movies, it makes little sense to sell what everyone else is selling. Not only are you in competition, driving the cost per track lower and lower against buyers who no longer have to drive from one store to another in search of good prices, but your wares are completely subject to being copied and distributed freely about the globe after the first sale.

It is highly unlikely, but not impossible, that a major artist could sell only a single copy of their latest album; and still reach millions of listeners. With a leak at the manufacturing stage, it isn’t even necessary to sell one!

So where is the new business model? Weird music. Unheard music. Unique music. NEW music. When you’re taking the time to describe it to potential buyers, and offering something they can’t get anywhere else, listeners are going to bite. There’s no incentive to ever offer this track for sale ever again, a concept that could dramatically affect the price of an mp3! This is the diversity I’m talking about– a world where every listener could treat music as their own, and be walking around with a completely unique soundtrack– where they’ve bought it, and it’s THEIRS to do with as they will… share it with others, re-sell it, whatever. I also can’t envision a big company being able to survive in this business model, they’re simply too top-heavy and slow. So not only will music’s diversity increase, but so will the diversity of the business landscape; I won’t be surprised to see mom-and-pop digital music stores popping up any day now, with netlabels as part of their ancestry.

I’m looking forward to it, aren’t you?

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