Posted by: Jim | February 21, 2007

The Next Consumer Revolution

I’ve had some in-depth conversations lately about the recording industry, and what happened to them, why the old paradigm was reduced to rubble, why Tower Records has been closed, why why why.

For me, the conversation was borne out of the ongoing ethical conflict I have with people downloading music (i.e. stealing) from online when that music legally belongs to someone else. Downloading this music is illegal, but many people I know and respect do not believe it is unethical. I personally do believe it is unethical, and so I still go to the store and buy CDs, or buy them online when the brick-and-morter store is too retarded to put the CD in a place where it can be found. (William Orbit, for example, appears under “Dance” music at Tower. Perhaps that is also why it shut down.)

The ethical dilemma draws out some very interesting justifications from the people who download music. The crux of the argument usually boils down to this:

1. The record companies were greedy, and grossly overcharging for music.
2. It doesn’t hurt the record companies to steal the music, because I wouldn’t buy it otherwise, and I might now go to a concert.
3. The artists were not making most of the money.
4. Therefore it is okay to steal it.

The net result of this argument was the absolute destruction of an empire that only 10 years ago seemed immovable. Beyond the ethical questions, I start wondering about the sociological ones. The argument causes me to believe that ethics become malleable for the masses. Why should this surprise me? I don’t know, but it makes me wonder where we might predict another revolution. Since I believe that societies move and change on the basis of certain constant “rules” of behavior, I am seriously wondering what “rule” doomed the old paradigm of music publication. So here are some ideas:

“If a monopoly grossly overcharges for something, then people will steal it.”

Too simple? Perhaps.

“If a monopoly grossly overcharges for something that people perceive as trivial or non-essential, they will steal it.”

Or maybe, “If a monopoly grossly overcharges for something, and seems to victimize the people that they are marketing, consumers will steal it.”

Whatever the societal rule that caused this, it might be a good thing. It might indicate that there is a built-in fail-safe that will prevent humanity from being oppressed by mega-corporations. Or, maybe we already are. Maybe the revolution is random.

I can’t help but wonder if Microsoft should worry.



  1. When a Microsoft operating system fails and requires a rebuild or upgrade, you’ve seen people ‘borrow’ an image from a friend or IT colleague rather than spending a lot of money at the computer store for a new copy. Or if you wouldn’t do that, in comparison perhaps it’s easier on the conscience to download music with a much smaller price tag.

    People will justify whatever their personal morals allow and their conscience can stand, especially when they can see themselves in a people’s revolution against “The Man” or “The Machine”. OK to download Windows XP, but not an album? Perhaps it is because it’s easier to see Microsoft as the evil empire, and yet still believe that downloading music hurts the artist. It’s a matter of pride in one’s own principals and sense of fairness. It’s the thing you want to pass on to your kids. Only you can draw that line.

  2. This is the way I look at it. As long as you are not trying to redistribute or sample the song for commercial gain, what’s the real harm? A good example is YTMND. Copyrighted pictures and music are used there constantly. You could argue that Max is making money off the site, but that gets in to a legal gray area.

    My experience has been that while it’s easy to find singles that have been ripped at a high bit-rate, finding all the songs on a CD that have been ripped with the same quality is something else.

  3. SORRY, this is a long comment, feel free to skip it.

    I suppose I am a good candidate to express a view on this as I am a prodigious downloader of music. First up, in answer to Tommy’s comment on finding all of a CD’s songs at high quality, two words – Bit Torrent. It sounds like Tommy is using LimeWire or similar. Using Bit Torrent, it’s not just about an album, it’s about grabbing entire discographies, the recorded output of perhaps 20 years. For free (free for me, I’ll come on to this).

    Next up. The old means of consuming music, buying it on vinyl or CD. Yes. I did this prodigiously. I have 2000 vinyl albums in the UK, and maybe 500 CDs. Collected over a ten year period or so (I sold my entire collection a couple of times when broke). Much of this collecting went on in an unwired world, with the buying at obscure record shops, record fairs, trawling thrift stores. There was a lot of unplanned joy at finding THAT record, THAT impossible-to-get single. There was a certain pleasure in owning the object.

    The first thing that weakened that joy was the move to CD. A CD looked shit, the artwork was now miniscule, the thing was digital. I would suggest that digital products lack ‘character’. The record companies boasted of the ‘perfect sound’ and so on, but I think it was also the Uniformity of CD that struck a consumer. A burned CD was no different.

    The next thing is the means of delivery. Why go 30 miles to a well-stocked record store when there is the internet? People are always going to be in thrall to the most rapid means of delivery. I feel that the record companies got it all wrong. They should have led the market on to the internet and abandoned selling CDs much sooner. The porn producers cleaned up, realising that buying online was more discreet, got rid of distribution costs, and so on. But the music stores perservered with their bricks-and-mortar and got what was coming. What was irreversible.

    After all, it is not just illegal downloads, but legal downloads, all downloads, that are going to kill a store with staff and electricity and heating bills.


    This brings me on to my justification for downloading music for free. First, let me say, I have bought music from Itunes, but it does not possess sufficient choice. And also, I am Serious about music, and that prevents me assembling a Velvet Underground discography itune download by itune download, as the cost is nonsensical when I can get it for free and faster, too. (Illegal music short-circuits all the legal obstacles that surround many bands, and limits the digital supply of their music. There are almost no artists where Itunes carries a Complete discography.)

    Secondly, there is no way that I could ever afford to buy all the music I have. I have a spending limit, and once I hit that, game over, no mas dinero. I also share a lot of music in turn, with other web-savvy people who are into the same scene. I think there is an argument that I am still serving artists interests as one of that elusive group – an opinion-former. Many bands see this logic and distribute their albums for nothing, knowing that it will raise their profile, bring people to their tours, and create a buzz that will bring in profit through legal consumers (like Jim).

    I also strip the Ipods of people I meet and break the digital rights management, turning them back into regular MP3s. To me, this is like returning injured animals back to the wild! It is right.

    As for why the model collapses, music was vastly overpriced. In the UK, it was not unusual to pay 30$ for a CD. People could see that a CD-R cost pennies to produce and that a CD was much lighter than a vinyl album. By any fair play of market forces, they should’ve have been cheaper. But, for me, the killer blow is delivery. Once people had decent bandwidth, MP3s started flying across the net. When the bandwidth hit another critical point, people started swapping movies too. In a few years, we are going to see entire cinematic oeuvres flying across the net too. Or an entire year’s worth of blockbusters.

    As for the corporate oppression, we are still in an interesting phase. The entertainment industry appears to have opted for enforcement (and, in some cases, pressed for extremely regressive control of content, to the extent that even a personal back-up runs foul of their rules), and secondly, like Itunes, and Emusic, and NetFlix, they have pulled their fingers out and got a new business model going. And these businesses are successful because they match delivery speeds of torrents AND can guarantee quality. For some people (not teenage boys and not me), that time-saving aspect, the security that you won’t get a virus, and the avoidance of having to learn about WinRar and HJSplit mean they will happily pay.

    We just happen to be in a phase with digital content where people can choose to play by the rules or not.

    (Final note- Movies. There’s no way I can source English movies here in Guatemala, the only option is illegal torrents. They add sufficient quality to my life, that I do it. The glow of being an obedient citizen does nothing for me.)

  4. I must say I am disappointed in people that choose to rip off the work of others. It was interesting to read the justification posted above for doing this, “But the music stores perservered with their bricks-and-mortar and got what was coming. ” or “Secondly, there is no way that I could ever afford to buy all the music I have. I have a spending limit, and once I hit that, game over, no mas dinero.”

    The music stores or regular people trying to make a living. It is not the big industry record companies putting them out of business….it is crooks stealing songs over the internet. How the record company chooses to distribute their product is their decision. I agree they could have done a better job setting up download of music but because they have not is a silly reason to justify stealing music. The fact that you cannot afford to buy all the music you want does not justify stealing it either. I would love to have a gas guzzling Shelby AC Cobra but I do not happen to have the extra $500,000 to afford it. I do not simply go steal it and then feel justified that is is their fault for not mass producing or offering it cheaper.

    Industry changes with technology and this is nothing new. Buggy whip manufaterers are not to common any longer. Did they get what was coming to them?

  5. “I would love to have a gas guzzling Shelby AC Cobra but I do not happen to have the extra $500,000 to afford it. I do not simply go steal it and then feel justified that is is their fault for not mass producing or offering it cheaper.”

    Neither do I. The analogy is, well, not analagous. A digital file is of a different nature to a Shelby Cobra, it can be reproduced perfectly and distributed freely. That’s kind of WHY there is a debate in the first place, and why the distribution model is a part of the argument. Also, to supplement what I said, people without access to credit cards are also disenfranchised from legitimate sources of digital downloads. As an artist myself, I tend to have a radical view on culture.

    You may not agree with it, but I am consistent.

    I have freely circulated my own work and would not object to people copying it, so long as they are not taking credit for it, or profiting financially. I would also support ending the 60 years of intellectual copyright on writer’s estates, as it deprives academics, students, and interested parties of access to huge swathes of our culture.

  6. You should look up Joseph Schumpeter. He had a theory on monopoly. He called it creative destruction.
    The theory goes something like this: Monopoly generates profits, profits attract others, others create technology to take part in the profit, new technology destroys the monopoly.
    Microsoft will get it too. They are scared of Google.

  7. Nice site 5385! Good site!!!

  8. 7780. Good site!!!

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