back to article Digital Music: a collective failure of imagination

It's about 10 years since I rigged up dynamic DNS in my apartment in San Francisco so I could play my music library remotely. I suspect many of you have tried something similar, and many more have subsequently used Orb or a Slingbox to achieve the same goal. This was before the iPod, and it seemed like a good idea at the time …


This topic is closed for new posts.
  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Green Shield Stamps

    Haven't seen those in a long while - the days when Argos was significantly cheaper than other shops and told you so. I suppose Tesco and Nectar points are the heir to those little stamps.

    I know book tokens still exist (after a fashion as a gift card). Is there still a "record token" out there or is it segmented into itunes cards and the like.

  2. The Fuzzy Wotnot

    Well said!

    There's very little originality out there now...

    Green Shield Stamps has become Nectar!

  3. Mike Street


    I don't want mp3 files - I want at least lossless (flac etc.) and preferably, SACD quality. Because I LIKE music.

    So do some other people - hard-to-get SACDs can fetch £40 or more - secondhand. And this is in a market with relatively few buyers, currently.

    The music industry is doing nothing to save itself apart from moaning & suing its customers. In many ways, it deserves to die, but it is harming music while it thrashes around in its death throws.

    1. Fatman

      RE: Quality

      Like you, I dislike mp3's, and while I have mucho music files on my PC, most of them are flac. I just like the sound better.

      I look at purchasing music as a value proposition. If a `digital download` costs me not that much less than a more valuable physical product, the extra expense is worth it.

      Here is an example of an older release:

      At the time I posted this there was only an 8 cent (yes, I am a merikin) difference between the mp3 download, and a physical CD. Which one do you think I would buy? (Hint: the CD)

      Now, a more current release by the same artist:

      Here you will notice that he prices are the same. In such a situation, the physical media is preferred. However, contrast that against:

      When you notice that there are 4 more tracks PLUS a DVD, guess which one I would buy??? Again, it's the physical media. The extra tracks and DVD make it more worthwhile for me.

      Lastly, I have seen the Microsoft `Plays For Sure` DRM system shut down because of a corporate decision. Those people are f-cked. I would rather have the media. You can not disable a physical disk on an executive's whim.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Collectible CDs/boxed sets

      can sell for a few hundred.

      But yes, there are multiple stupidities happening here:

      1. Loss of quality. MP3s are for casual listeners. Real music lovers want better quality. SACD is only playable on PCs with specialised hardware, but FLAC 24/96 is playable on anything with a decent sound card. (Arguably not as good, but more practical.)

      2. Loss of back catalogue. Because the cost of digital distribution is close to zero, there's no reason why back catalogue couldn't be sold online. But currently record companies still sell CDs first, and then consider digital as an afterthought.

      3. Freetards. Sad but true - getting stuff for free cheapens it. Even if you buy more elsewhere. Resolution Magazine (pro-audio and studio tech) recently ran a feature that illustrated how sales of prime industry production software *died* as soon as it was ripped off and torrented.

      4. Greedtards. The app model suggests there are a lot more people willing to pay pennies for something than $$$$. High quality downloads for - say - $5, with direct artist support, would give everyone less incentive to torrent.

      5,. Lack of talent support. The music industry spent forty years ripping off artists. It invested too small a proportion of cash back into talent A&R, and narrowed the kinds of music that it sold. So it didn't just price itself out of non-mainstream markets - of which there are many - it killed them. Which was stupid.

      6. Lack of cross-media promotion. The industry still thinks in units - books, records, DVDs - and not in cross-media audience-related experiences. Some creators are starting to be more imaginative than this.

      7. Digital sharecropping - see also YouTube, Amazon, MySpace, SoundCloud, etc, who put up any old content as a "service" but who are really just flooding the market with free creative product in return for ad revenue - which they feel no need to share with creators.

      It's all a bit sad and unhealthy, which may be one reason why recent music has become so boring.

      The core problem is that corporate wankers hate creative people with a passion, and don't understand what creativity or art are for.

      If you're a bean counter you think it's all about unit sales - but it isn't.

      1. JEDIDIAH

        SBA nonsense

        > Resolution Magazine (pro-audio and studio tech) recently ran a feature that illustrated how sales of prime industry production software *died* as soon as it was ripped off and torrented.

        You make it sound like piracy is a new thing or something. It isn't even "apps" have been pirated for as long as there have been personal computers (longer probably). The idea that any form of piracy caused the "death" of some app is just lame whiners trying to make excuses for some other failure of their own.

        "production" software is pirated a whole lot less for the simple reason that the people who would be doing the pirating are very visible and have something to lose. The UK edition of the SBA could come knocking.

        Things like market saturation and cheaper competitors are a more likely culprit.

        ...don't have to pirate Beatles files from iTunes if you already own CDs or tapes or the original vinyl.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Sound Quality

          "I just like the sound better."

          Heard it all before. BITD I recall people telling me that those new fangled CDs didn't sound as good as vinyl. A blind test on a bunch of them showed them to be talking cock. I've come across loads of similar cases like people claiming they can hear the difference between an old strad and a new goog quality violin.

          It's easy to say you can hear the difference, much harder to demonstrate it.

  4. User McUser
    Thumb Down

    Virtual music currency??

    What is the point in the further abstraction of currency?

    Tell you what, instead of "green stamps", why don't we just use "greenbacks"? One Greenback buys US$1 worth of music. Seems to have worked so far.

  5. Jim 59

    Digital Music

    Once the product can be digitised, all bets are off. When anybody can make perfect and infinite (if illegal) copies of your product, it becomes hard to sell. It happened to music, and it may happen to books. You may critisize a lack of commercial innovation, but what would you do ? On the other hand, Itunes does okay, so maybe there is hope. Perhaps they should vary the price with the sales of the song. Eg. the higher a song goes up the charts, the cheaper it gets. Or some better formula.

    I personally favour buying music on CDs, which are often very cheap these days.

    1. Mike VandeVelde

      there's the rub

      Kind of like how the illuminator's guild has remained so powerful all these centuries - since nobody in their right mind could bring themselves to steal, *STEAL* from them by stooping to Piracy with those artist crushing printing press contraptions.

      There are a lot of musicians out there who are focusing on being musical, and not stressing out about having tyrannical control over the pale imitation of the real thing you get with any kind of recording. Those glory days of hot and cold running hookers for the pop music fabrication of the day are ending, no tears over here.

      I like collecting CDs too, but it's become a bit like collecting stamps now hasn't it?

      1. Jerome 0

        Pale imitations

        I always enjoy the "live music is the real music" argument when it crops up. There are plenty of musical genres out there for which the live show is the "pale imitation" and the recorded work is the "real thing".

        Not that I disagree with you over the pointlessness of the whole "tyrannical control" thing, by any means. But that doesn't change the fact that for some artists the problem can't be resolved by simply getting out there and earning their living by playing live.

        1. JEDIDIAH

          Pale imitations

          Well, if you can't give the public something other than the MP3 then you've got a basic business problem regardless of what your particular philosophy on music is. Even before the idea of selling copies of the music became passe, the biggest cash cow for a musician was actually playing in front of an audience.

          If you can't offer that, then you are immediately at a disadvantage regardless of what era of the music business you happen to find yourself in.

          Yes such "musicians" are pale imitations. They get to suffer for it like any other mediocre player in the market.


      Digital Music

      I have a radical suggestion.

      How about you allow the advancing technology to make your product more useful?

      I buy more DVDs because my iTunes-esque personally hacked setup makes the content more useful because I can do interesting things with it. Most people won't bother because the industry likes to put up roadblocks against this sort of thing. They are worried about the thieves that they are forgetting about the customer.

      Of course I am a vulture though. Amazon allows me to very easily and brutally price shop the stuff I do buy. I can exploit Amazon to show me when stuff is on deep discount and bide my time. Or I can just wait for the long tail to inevitably deposit things into the Walmart/Tesco bargain bin. For most stuff I am patient.

      The glut of content available for purchase suppresses prices and makes it easier to be a cheap b*stard.

      Only BBC stuff seems to be immune to this... '-p

  6. CPU

    Greed is good...?

    I agree with your article on innovation, we see precious little of it on the internet as many a business tries to recreate the "bricks & mortar" business model in the virtual world with whatever technological flotsam they can find in the devlopers shed.

    Re the Economist: This "percieved value" is just a smoke screen to cover the fact that they (distribution) no longer have the same overheads. Delivering an mp3 to London costs the same as New York. Yet for some reason the music industry still feels the need to charge the same price for the music as though it's a physical delivery. Whatever happend to reducing the overheads and passing the savings on? And this whole idea of applying region or democraphic based charging will surely leave a sour taste in most people's mouths: Why should a USA student pay a different price to a 30 something Accountant in UK to a retired person in Japan for the exact same mp3?

  7. Ian Ferguson

    Maybe there's another answer

    I feel the music industry is crying foul over an issue that does not need to exist, and is not our problem. ('Our' meaning the human race)

    Here's an analogy. Britain used to employ tens of millions of spinners and weavers. Slaving away, usually at home, spinning wool into thread and weaving thread into cloth by hand.

    Why has the bottom dropped out of this market? Why does hard work of spinners now go unrewarded? Because of this hideous new industrial technology! Tell you what: Let's ban all automation, as it's devaluing the market and putting hordes of people out of work!

    Of course, we now ridicule the Luddites. I can't help feeling that in a few decades we'll ridicule the antiquated thinking of the music industry.

    Simply put, there is no money in the music industry any more. Sure, there's plenty of room for homegrown enthusiasts, just like there is in knitting at home. We'll never grow tired of live music, or homemade products. But the big markets, and humanity in general, have moved on. And you know what? If we've moved on, it's almost certainly for the better. Bye bye homespun wool; bye bye generic autotuned pop music.

    Or would you prefer to going back to itchy woolly underwear?

    1. Elmer Phud

      Cottage industry

      "Or would you prefer to going back to itchy woolly underwear?"

      If anything, as tech has improved music production has blossomed in homes.

      Whodathought that from building your own patchbays for a Tascam244 and cursing a Copycat through the humble Amiga and countless numbers of pirate Cubase we could end up with multi-track high quality digital recording in the comfort of one's own bedroom.

      No home recording - no Grime, no Dubstep etc. etc.. That's where it's happening, bifgger studios are for mastering - but only sometimes.

    2. TheOtherHobbbes

      Er, no.

      If you only get hobbyist musicians, you get hobbyist music. While it was still working, the music business did two things:

      1. Found exceptional new talent.

      2. Funded and sponsored exceptional new talent.

      3. Gave exceptional talent the resources to work full-time.

      That latter part is important. It's difficult and time-consuming to write good music, just as it is to make good films or to write good novels. It takes most people a few years of constant effort to get reasonably good at it, and if they have to share professional time with a day job they're never going to be firing on all cylinders.

      Which is why we now have so much auto-tuned generic pop music, as opposed to legendary and iconic records that were released from (more or less) the 60s to the mid-90s.

      People still want good music, but contrary to your argument, if you industrialise it you don't get Tesco music, not the quality stuff that people actually like.

      Unlike weaving it's not a mechanical process. If you try to replace it with a mechanical process you get mechanical results.

      No one expects a doctor or a software engineer to get good results if they're having to work a different day job, and it isn't any different for artists.

      1. JEDIDIAH

        Yeah... whatever.

        > 1. Found exceptional new talent.

        Yes. Like Warrant, Cindrella, Nitro and Pretty Boy Floyd.

        With gatekeepers like that, we're probably better off the the Vandals.

      2. John Armstrong-Millar

        The vision thing

        1. Found exceptional new talent.

        2. Funded and sponsored exceptional new talent.

        3. Gave exceptional talent the resources to work full-time.

        Yes but they got greedy and forgot that.

    3. Jim 59


      Re the weaving analogy. Yes, technology killed the spinning wheel. It's different with MP3, where tech has killed not only the preceding technology, but has altogether removed the motivation to make music in the first place. Its as if the weaving machine killed not only the spinning wheel, but the sheep as well. Without sheep, the weaving machine can't weave. Unless artists are motivated to make good music, there won't be any.

      1. Richard Gadsden 1

        Re: Sheep

        "Unless artists are motivated to make good music, there won't be any."

        You're missing a word: "more".

        There is already more music than any one could possibly ever listen to.

  8. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    Imagination has little to do with it

    Modern "music" published by major labels is without exception commoditised rubbish.

    They are not so much afraid of experimenting, they've just made their decision - go for conveyor belt mass produced, disposable, low-risk teenager-pleasers and force everyone to buy or listen to them (thus making ad revenue) through their lobbying power.

    That "music" has no value beyond the bandwidth it uses and the time it takes to swallow, digest and excrete its sonic equivalent of donner-kebab.

    Proper music can still sell - on the grounds of talent, ideas, quality, convenience of search and access, physical possession.

    Noone is interested in making an effort, though, when you can sell justin biebers and the like, when you know that there will be enough gullible teenagers who will pay good money for DRM'ed crap because they want it now and are incapable of thinking what will happen tomorrow and the stuff is so bad that tomorrow does not matter anyway...

    Why is it all happening? Probably many reasons, with the existing copyright system being one of the main culprit. It encourages anticompetitive behaviour and makes preservation of "traditional" business models more attractive than innovation.

    1. frank ly

      re. sonic equivalent of donner kebab

      I've always found a good donner kebab to be a powerful and intensely moving experience.

  9. This post has been deleted by a moderator

    1. Jerome 0
      Thumb Up


      Maybe, but I love it when I realise I can comment on it for a change!

  10. Mike Flugennock

    They forgot the most important experiment...

    ...which would be going back to producing and promoting bands and performers who DON'T SUCK.

    It doesn't matter how much a Black-Eyed Peas track costs, because they still suck.

  11. Schultz Silver badge

    Old business

    Music is an old business by now, it's been sold in unchanged (digital) format for a generation and there will only be incremental growth of demand. There are simply few new consumers entering the market. Too bad for the music industry, which thought it could resell the same stuff in the same format over and over again.

    They'll have to live with the small margins of a mature industry. What a pity!

  12. Kristian Walsh

    Napster? First?

    Tch. Hotline, m'boy, Hotline.

  13. David Pollard

    Live music?

    For some while I've found it disheartening that the capacity of the internet has not been used to distribute live music: from small gigs, groups playing in a pub, musicians meeting to play just for the enjoyment of it... There must be a vast range of music being played worldwide at all times and technically it wouldn't be too difficult to make this available in fair quality. The difficulty, of course, comes from copyright, licensing and the money-machine of the 'music industry'.

    The situation is a bit like what they say about flying: we want to fly but end up sitting in aluminium tubes that carry us from place to place. We want to hear people making music and to make music. We end up with an industry that sells us electronic packages.

  14. Anonymous Coward

    "Well for a hit, students would pay as much as $2.30 per song."

    I bloody wouldn't. That's more than the equivalent of a CD album. I'd pirate it instead.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    It is difficult to feel much sympathy for companies that have spent decades deliberately not paying many of their artists, or to have much hope they have any creative ideas on what to do next.

  16. Youngone Silver badge


    Thanks once again for an article about the music business that makes some good points. Thanks also for giving us the opportunity to comment, very nice.

    The title "A collective failure of imagination" seems to me to apply in the first instance to the record companies. They own the rights to recorded music, and mostly have done since music was first recorded. The Internet, and associated technologies have been available for well over 10 years now, and yet the record companies have never provided music online to customers willing to pay. That job has fallen to Apple, mostly. They however are not really allowed to make a profit from the service because those same record companies don't want to lose control, (I suppose).

    Just saying.

  17. This post has been deleted by a moderator

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Tiered Pricing

    I remember BITD of vinyl when after a few years albums became available on cheap labels. Back in the 80's as an impecunious student I picked up a lot of classic sixties and seventies albums on cheap labels like Fame. In most cases the only difference was the packaging. Usually there were no gatefolds, printed inner sleeves or lyric sheets, just the original front and back covers printed on a simple sleeve. Some claimed the pressing wasn't as good as the original, and maybe in some cases it wasn't, but I found that on some of these albums you could peel the cheap label off the record to reveal the original label underneath. It was a way of labels and artists making money out of music that wouldn't otherwise sell many copies.

    Then there were other cheap releases out there. Remember those albums with things like "Pay No More than £3.99" printed on the front cover?

    These days most digital music services will charge you the same for a track (or album) whether it's brand new of some obsure forty year old "classic" that most people have never heard of. If people aren't buying the stuff any more the record companies try all sorts of tosh to try to sell to the faithful. Remember all that stuff that you were encouraged to buy on CD when you already had it on vinyl? You were told you had to buy it if you were a true fan because it had been "digitally remastered". Now the same stuff is allegedly being remastered again to even higher quality in order to be released on MP3. Suckers, sory customers, are told that ripping their CDs simply isn't enough. If they want to hear the music to best effect they need to buy the new versions that have been remastered especially to take advantage of the new technology. Right. Rather than wasting our time trying to sell us stuff we already have why don't they go back to the old ways. There was plenty of stuff I would never have bought at full price, but happilly bought for half price because I knew a couple of tracks or I'd heard some of the artists stuff.

    And what about sales. I've never noticed a digital music service having a proper sale. Go to an old fashioned music store and you'll still see sales. Maybe the chart stuff isn't greatly reduced, but you'll find a lot of three for two offers that are aimed at getting you to buy stuff you wouldn't usually buy. Ever noticed how hard it is to find three albums you *really* want in those sales? So you buy one you're not entirely sure of, but if it turns out to be good then you're happy because it was effectively free.

    We're often told music sales are down, could a lot of that be down to the fact that the industry thinks that every single track is worth the same amount of money to everybody.

This topic is closed for new posts.

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021