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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Swift's Modest Proposal

In the (increasingly virtual) pages of the Wall Street Journal, Taylor Swift puts (also virtual) pen to paper and outlines an optimistic view of the future of music.

She talks about the connection between artists and fans, and that for some fans, an artist will become "the one". This absolutely happens, and while the music industry spends untold millions trying to make lightning strike, that fact that the lightning in question does indeed strike should not be ignored.

I think her optimistic take on the landscape is pretty much spot on, in much the way that I'm optimistic about the future of the Earth. Paraphrasing an observation George Carlin made years ago, people worrying about "saving the Earth" have got it wrong: the Earth will be here long after we're gone - it's us we're trying to save. In the same way, there should never be a concern about the future of music. The future of the music industry, however, is another thing entirely.

It's important to note that, in her piece, Ms. Swift hardly ever mentions the "industry".  She's very concerned (and she should be) about the "worth" of music, but the fact that she says nothing about the people who invariably suck up the lion's share of that "worth" pretty much underscores the likelihood that those peoples' days are numbered. (You'll note that they're generally the ones moaning about the "death of the music industry," and Ms. Swift is decidedly not doing that in her piece.)

The music industry owes its existence to the fact that, for a hundred years, they represented the only way an artist could present their art to a mass audience. The "industry" had a stranglehold on manufacturing, distribution and promotion of the artists' work, and over time they came to regard that work as "product".

The word "product" has been bandied about as an indication of the industry's desire to take the wild aspirations of artists "lucky" enough to sign contracts with them and reduce them to easily saleable units moving down the assembly line where, presumably, Lucy and Ethel can wrap them with a bow.
There was no more tangible illustration of that attitude than the introduction of the Compact Disc. While it represented a quantum leap in the reliability of music playback (No clicks! No pops! No scratches! It's perfect because it's digital!) and led to a massive windfall for the industry as people re-bought the music they loved in non-scratchy form, it cheapened the presentation of art. The album, once a graphical wonderland of packaging and presentation that demanded ever more daring solutions to the question of "how shall we protect the 12-inch vinyl disc inside", became a one-size-fits-all plastic box with perfunctory, and easily lost, insert design.

In doing so, the music industry sowed the seeds of their destruction. The public came to realize that the convenient 5.25-inch disc on which all their music came was just as good as any other 5.25-inch disc they could copy it to. Or copy it from. You didn't need to collect the disc if all you cared about on it was the music.

Taylor Swift's piece, and its insistence on the "worth" of music, is worth a read. Music does have worth. Objects of desire have worth.  But music, in and of itself, is not an object of desire, because you have it when you hear it, and if you can hear it whenever you want, its worth is only estimable as the product of a stream of similarly presented artistic effort.

To put it one way, in the movie "The Maltese Falcon", if the Maltese Falcon itself appeared any time someone said "Maltese Falcon", there wouldn't have been much of a movie. There would have been Maltese Falcons as far as the eye could see. Everyone could have as many as they liked. There would have been no need for chases, for subterfuge, or for Peter Lorre.

To put it another way, water is a hysterically valuable resource, but when we see it coming out of our faucet when we turn the little knob, its worth is consistent only with the fact that we see that happen all the time. And in actual fact, we may pay hundreds of dollars each time the water bill comes, but we don't think about that when we turn the knob.

But we still buy bottled water. Why? Because we like how it's packaged.

A lesson for the music industry should be inferred here. Present us with a package. Create an object of desire.  When we get the arrow through the heart that Taylor Swift describes, make sure we can get our hands on the quiver that arrow came from, as appealingly and as covetousness-inducingly as possible.

Trust me...we like our packaging.


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