Is MP3 Music a Perishable Product?

By Richard Menta- 2/20/00

An interesting thing happened the other day. An epiphany of sorts that brought some lucidity to my thoughts and feelings involving the world of downloadable digital music.

My friend's wife is a Santana fan. She is also an avid MP3 collector - an act which in the eyes of the major music labels makes her a criminal - and like any fan, has several digitized tunes of her favorite artists, including half of Santana's Supernatural.


Richard Menta

Yesterday she bought the Supernatural CD.

This act peaked my curiosity. I asked her "if you already had most of the music on your computer for free, why did you spend money for it"? The question made sense: if you believe the RIAA, there is no reason for her to now pay for what she already has in her possession. Her reply? She wanted the CD.

I pressed her for more details and she was not shy of reasons. In fact, she gave me several good ones.

"A jewel case is tangible, 1's and 0's are not. I like to be able to hold something. I like the cover art and the booklet with the lyrics, I like to be able to play it in my car, I like to play it on my stereo which is not in the same room as my computer. I like to play it on my computer at work as well and don't feel like downloading it twice."

I asked her if she considered buying the whole album digitally from a site like EMusic. Her response was equally interesting. "What happens if I want to listen to it three years from now? I probably won't have the same computer and I know I won't transfer all those songs to the new computer, too much effort. And what if my drive goes bad, I'll lose everything anyway".

Here's the bottom line. As hooked as she was on MP3 music, she saw it as a perishable product. Not something you own per se, just something to borrow until she got around to buying her favorites. Santana's Supernatural is not the first CD she bought after already possessing several tunes from an album digitally.

A perishable product. This may be a key! A basis to explain why the major labels have less to worry about digital music piracy than they claim.

If you think about it, radio is a perishable product. You hear songs all day long for free, but no one comes after you for piracy. In just the last month alone, I have personally listened to Santana's Smooth on the radio far more times than I have listened to any song in my CD collection. The song is on every station, you can barely escape it. Yet, it became number one in sales because of, rather than despite, its omnipresence on the dial. That's not surprising, nothing promotes an artist better than radio ubiquity.

Furthermore, listeners have for the last 25 years been able to record off the radio for free onto cassette. This bypasses the need to purchase the album and, according to the record companies logic, costs the industry sales. Yet, record sales skyrocketed during these years. Why?

Cassettes are less perishable than sound over the airwaves, but experience shows that after a few years and numerous plays, they do have a tendency to rattle, creak and eminate a muffled, degraded sound. Accidently place them near a magnetic source and the recording can be erased. Could this inherent, and fairly slow, perishibility explain why the fears trumpeted by the record companies that cassettes would kill the music industry never occured?

Thinking back, I personally have purchased more than a few CD's of favorite albums that I owned previously on homemade cassette (I also replaced quite a few albums I owned on store-bought cassettes). I copied them from friends, more to explore new music beyond what my meager funds could bring me than to get over on the local record shop. I listened to them often, developing a healthy and sometimes eclectic palette of artists and musical styles.

Many of these artists, Bob Marley for example, were not played on the popular radio stations in the early 80's. College radio served these "alternative artists" in those days, as did the small legion of aware fans who generously let us tape their albums. Marley was already sucumbing to cancer and yet, at this point, few people outside of the universities heard of him or knew he, not Eric Clapton, recorded the original version of I Shot The Sheriff. His reputation would grow though, and while home taping certainly can't be credited for generating this legacy, it did serve as an early vehicle to introduce his music to the unititiated. I feel this is a role that MP3 serves today.

The point is, while my albums and CD's held up fine over time, my cassettes didn't. Over the years, I replaced them with the more archive-worthy formats. My computer will probably be able to play MP3 or Liquid Audio files 5 years from now (assuming a new, better format doesn't displace them), but how about 10? How about 15? Will Windows 2012 even support MP3? Even if it can, does it matter? Unless I re-copy those files every few years to new computers or buy a CD burner, time and the nature of memory storage will see that they disintegrate over time

Indeed, if what I suggest is true and the minions on the net truly sense that digital music downloads are a perishable item, it may explain Jupiter Communications findings last July that MP3 downloads stimulated, not hurt CD sales (Research: MP3s Sell CDs). It serves to introduce new music, it further spreads the ubiquity of hit music, however it is not viewed as permanent and therefore doesn't serve our long term record collecting goals. In truth, what are we really doing when we purchase records but archiving our aural memories to be revisited later like favorite photographs. In this light, it matters less that we already heard the song a million times over.

Of course, this hasn't stopped the record industry from claiming billions of dollars in lost revenue from digital piracy (where they got those numbers and how they measured them are truly a mystery to me). A claim contradicted by the Recording Industry Association of America themselves in their annual report on sales released February 18th:

Washington, February 18, 2000 -- Closing in on $15 billion, the market for recorded music, measured by what manufacturers ship to retail and non-retail channels, continued its upward trend in 1999...the corresponding dollar value of those shipments at suggested list price increased 6.3% from $13.7 billion in '98 to $14.6 billion last year.

It might be worth noting that a decade ago when CD's started to share shelf space with vinyl albums an interesting thing occurred. About 70% of the CD's being sold then were to people purchasing music they ALREADY OWNED on vinyl. Think about this, most sales went to people buying music they already posessed and in a format that was anything but perishable (unless you left your records in the sun or never changed the needle).

The fact is, consumers wanted their favorite music in the new format and were willing to pay for it. This is a precedent that has already happened and not just in the music industry. Classic episodes of I Love Lucy sell very well in video stores even though the show has been constantly available on TV since 1952 and for free home taping since the first VCR's were shipped (which also says something about consumer desire for an "Official" product with cover art and liner notes). So why do the record companies fear this can't happen with MP3 files, files that most people are forced to play from their tiny computer speakers because the stereo is in another room? Files that may be subject to both the real and perceived perishability we just discussed.

History says consumers will actively pay to posess music in multiple formats. They first get it free on radio, web pages and the new Napster software, then buy it on CD, cassette, and whatever formats come in the future. The music industry is well aware of this history, they just choose to exercise convenient memory to lambast Net music. Of course, the fact they also don't control Net music is another significant element here as they were not the ones who got to decide if it would be a free or a pay medium.

Only time will tell

Only time will tell if this theory of perishability will hold weight. My suspicion is that Internet music downloads will work best as promotional tools, even more so than those early cassette recordings we made as students, because the distribution of the music is far and away more efficient. They won't replace CD albums- with a potential half-life of only 3 or 4 years that may prove difficult - but it looks like they can sell them, partially by broadening our musical palletes in a way that radio and its niche marketing no longer does. Anyone who follows Amazon's free digital download section will tell you that the free singles go a long way to pushing sales. These cybersingles could easiliy replace CD singles, which presently are money losers for the record companies as they cost more to print and land-ship than they pull in. Shifting to cybersingles would be a fiscal gain for the music industry right off the bat.

A recent experiment to promote the group Camper Van Beethoven may shine more light to the power of Net music to promote.

This long-defunct band, one-time darlings of the college radio circuit and now unknown to anyone under 25, recently released all of their old out-of-print albums on MP3 for free on the Pitch-a-Tent records site. When you think about it, why not? These albums no longer bring in any money, but as a whole body of work they might be able to resurrect a new fan base. A base that would eagerly purchase the two remaining albums in print as well as a new album of thirteen live and previously unreleased Camper tracks that the record company released this month. If very successful, there is even potential for those out-of-print records to be revived.

We'll soon see how well this works. No guarantee, of course, but it certainly sounds like a smart alternative over allowing excellent music to disappear in an attic. I, for one, hope it succeeds. Right now I can name dozens of brilliant artists from the 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's, and even 90's whose records are sadly no longer available. If MP3 can bring some commercial life back to this long-neglected segment of music, then the format would prove an economic proficiency beyond the reach of traditional marketing methods.

That said, maybe the record companies should worry less about lost record sales through digital piracy and more about lost record sales due to missed opportunity.

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