The Horror Of Intangible Music

Today’s post actually was written yesterday morning as a comment on Billie Ray Martin’s website following her appearance on a panel at the ByLarm conference in Oslo recently. The talented Ms. Martin is attempting to eke out a recording and singing career on her own terms in this post-music industry era. As difficult as she finds this, she has much cogent commentary on the subject of all things Spotify here as a blogpost on her panel appearance. When I contemplate the future of music in the commercial sphere, it is entering dark and stormy waters if you’ve bothered to pay attention during the last decade or so. The rush to the model of music as an intangible asset disturbs me on many levels.

1) I no longer have control over what I can listen to. The labels control what is and is not streaming according to their deals at any given time. Too bad if you want to hear Band X on the day after their licensing agreement with Label Y expires for Streaming Service Z.

2) It effectively kills the secondary market for music. I’m the Post-Punk Monk. I’m all about hearing and collecting the music of the Post-Punk period. I can do this in 2012 by buying the music on the secondary market when the primary market is not providing it.

What I am specifically interested in is: material lost to even release on CD format – B-sides, remixes, promo mixes, mixes exclusive to differing territories. For the most part, this material is in a vast grey area where an artist is signed to Label A in the UK and is licensed to Label B in the US. When Label A releases the deluxe version of an album with bonus material, the mixes commissioned by Label B will not be included since Label A has no rights to this material that Label B “created.” And so on.

The industry has long sought ways to eliminate the secondary market for music since they see no financial benefit in it. With intangible music, this becomes a reality, at least in the legal sense. There will always be file swappers, but I choose not to partake in that for a number of reasons. [it is theft/it is lower quality – usually/it is still intangible]

3) When music is intangible, the file must constantly be backed up if you even have access to it in the first place. Disregarding streaming, even the scant handful of downloads I have bought on occasion in the last decade [<50 tracks] reside on a hard drive with finite life.

Maintaing a music collection of files requires regular “maintenance” in ways that the vast racks of vinyl and CDs do not. For me, this is an inconvenience, but then again, I do not like to listen to music on a computing device. Admission: I now own an iPod Touch and use it as a means of testing my web work on a smartphone platform without actually having to own a smartphone [I’m also down on cell phones – they’re just another bill to me]. It is great having a capable computer that’s a slim, pocket sized device! And FaceTime on that puppy is incredible! Like Dick Tracy’s 2-way wrist TV – finally! Music on the unit: zero.

4) Which brings me to my fourth bullet – the idea of reducing music to just another utility bill. The concept alone paints a dismally banal picture of music and the power it has to shape and reflect the human psyche! The very idea is insulting to me.

The labels would love for everyone to pay $25 a month to stream anything they have available. At the end of the month, I possess nothing and the label has just netted $25. How much of that reaches the artist is a topic for much speculation. Not forgetting that the labels will be able to dictate the terms of the licensing agreement with the end user. $25 a month now, but this will change as the labels see fit.

5) Intangible music has no lifespan outside of the label’s control. When you die, your download’s license dies with you. You can’t will your downloads to anybody – it would be a breach of your license agreement. How will this affect our culture when music no longer has a life of its own owing to its lack of a physical medium? Records and CDs are an anthropological treasure that we can all partake in if we choose to. We can walk into a record store and see an obscure record we have never heard of that had nothing to do with a major label and buy it to discover what it can offer us. Independent music is already marginalized by major label culture. In an intangible music culture it is subject to musical genocide by lawyers and bankers.

The digitization of our culture frightens me with regard to what future generations will be able to experience of our culture in the unimaginable years ahead. We still have books, sculpture, and arts from the vast array of human existence to study and reflect upon. Will your children’s children be able to play your files on their OS? Can you even open up a word processing document from 20 years ago?

All of these thoughts haunt me in these times of catastrophic transition.

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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6 Responses to The Horror Of Intangible Music

  1. jt says:

    The thing to remember here is that the current music industry paradigm was not dictated by the labels, it was dictated by the users. The labels held out on downloading and streaming services for years. They’re *happy* to sell you a CD. But the vast, vast bulk of consumers like streaming/downloading music. They’re not thinking of long-term record collections, they’re thinking of being entertained right now, in the moment. Although I am of a similar mind as you, we are a vanishingly small minority. All of this said, the vinyl comeback is actually growing because there is that market of people who want to own a *thing*, and vinyl is considered to be more fun, more collectible, and – by some people – better sounding than a CD.


  2. Tim says:

    I think this is the best post you’ve made on your blog. I wish that the comments on it would be more active.
    I’ve migrated a lot of my collection to digital and there’s a backup of everything. I prefer a physical product for some things and others I am content with the digital. The general shift to all things digital is something that I am still digesting in my quasi-Alvin Toffler ways. On some levels I am really OK with it and on others I feel like there is a significant something that is missing. Amazon digital downloads will never have the smell and textures of a record store, for example. Another thing is the whole point of entry to something via browsing. I live in Madison, WI, population 220,000+ and we have one new book store in the entire city, Barnes and Noble, one in a mall on the east side, one next to the sister mall on the west side. The University Bookstore, Big 10 campus and all that blah blah blah….the University’s bookstore is a gutted shadow of what it once was. The quantity of used book stores here is greatly diminished. I have a bright one year old son and my wife and I read with him because we want him to be a reader and I think of how I spent hours of every day growing up in the news stands and bookstores of my home town, lost in things to read. There was the library, too, that was for older things, but you couldn’t find the new Starlog there or a Playboy someone hid in another part of the store. I’d wander through these places of reading and look at books I wasn’t even interested in reading, but it opened new areas of interest for me. I do wonder a lot if my son will find the same satisfaction surfing the web as I did buried in the SF/Fantasy section of The Paper Tiger. I wonder if he will feel as compelled to read as his mother and I do or if it will just be another thing to do out of a plethora of stimuli that are there for the effortless taking.


  3. chas_m says:

    Given some of the beautiful box and deluxe album designs that have come out over the years, I don’t have too much concern that “music of quality and distinction” will survive as a physical object — people clearly want to pay for it just as what I’ll call “new vinyl hipsters” do. I have lots of digital music but very little of it actually not attached to some physical object I own.

    What concerns me more is that the OMDs of this world will spread the word — the fans of MoQ&D will pay through the nose for our good stuff! The cost of an actual “album” you can hold in your hands will skyrocket like concert tickets have done. I don’t blame Eno or Ferry for cashing in — more power to them, in fact, particularly if it means they’re motivated to make more music! — but I’d hate to see all “good” albums become museum-piece collectibles almost as much as I’d hate to see all music be only digital.


  4. Jon says:

    “the idea of reducing music to just another utility bill”–I’ve never thought about it like that, but that is sad indeed. I still buy things primarily on CD, though I do buy single mp3s of bands/songs that I anticipate will be little more than a flash-in-the-pan in my overall listening. I grew up buying 7″ singles and I suppose if there were a 7″ available, I’d buy that over the mp3. Anyway, I wanted to comment because this was an interesting read which I only stumbled upon (but I’m glad I did) because you had server trouble during today’s lunchtime post which wiped it out (10/13/15)


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