Lesson for the recording industry: Know what you’re selling

by Chris Seibold Nov 19, 2007

You hear it all the time: the music industry whining about piracy. Since people are self possessed they imagine this is the first time in history the music industry moaned loud enough to make a porn star jealous about piracy. Far from the truth.

The music industry bitched about piracy when FM radio came along. Bitched louder when stations started playing complete albums (because listeners might record the albums). They bitched about cassette tapes, bitched mightily about DAT (digital audio tapes). In short, the music industry bitches every time there is a way to duplicate music. Even when it is Girl Scouts singing. (They later relented).

The fear of the music industry is unfettered copying. Why on earth, the industry reasons, would anyone bother buying an album when high fidelity (in fact near perfect) duplicates are possible with, say, digital audio tapes? Those reasons are indicative of an entire industry that doesn’t really understand what they are selling.

The music industry thinks, sincerely believes, that they sell high quality recordings of music. That thinking is right up there with strippers imaging that they are selling interpretive dance. What the music industry has always sold, what they would be pushing if only they realized what they actually sold, is convenience.

Skeptical of the “convenience” notion? Who can blame you? After all until a few years ago the music industry sold “things”. CD’s with art, record albums with a pop gun inside, cassettes with the lyrics printed in the inserts. If you’re selling actual things you’re not selling convenience …right?

Don’t dismiss the notion out of hand. Consider, if you will, what music recordings started out as: replacements for a live performance. While audiophiles would undoubtedly whine loudly about the reproduction qualities if Beethoven were reincarnated and personally conducted his amassed works most listeners would be happy. They’re hearing the music they want to hear (bonus: seeing zombie Beethoven lead the band would be tremendous).

Of course, you can’t see zombie Beethoven lead the symphony because you live Knoxville and Zombie Beethoven is in Boston. And even if you did live near Boston you are on someone else’s schedule. Zombie Beethoven might be playing at eight downtown, parking might be a bitch and you can only hear it while the show is going on. The whole thing is a hassle.

Thomas Edison realizes that maybe people might want to hear music on their schedule and combines two things he’s working on and comes up with the cylindrical phonograph. Which is great. Suddenly you can listen to music whenever you want. Wait, that sounds more convenient.

And it was, music proved popular to purchase, people bought the records to listen to music on their schedule. Note that the fidelity wasn’t great but it beat putting up those pretentious opera lovers.

Unsurprisingly the technology improved. Cylindrical records gave way to disc shaped records. Disc shaped records were easier to manage and store, you could put them in a stack and all and flip through the things to impress others with your music collection and the discs of wax soon became the norm. Hey, they were more convenient.

Eight tracks came along and the clunky things had a big advantage over records, they were tough and you could take them anywhere. Anywhere included the dashboard of your Camaro, and nothing impressed the girl in the tube top more than an eight track of ELO, so eight track tapes took off. Eight tracks were more convenient.

Eight tracks had a few drawbacks, the annoying clicking noise between tracks to cite one flaw but just as importantly you couldn’t hit the exact song you wanted when you wanted it. Say you were really wanted to hear Kool and the Gang performing Let’s Go Dancing there was every chance you’d have to sit through some portion of some less desired song to get to it. Records weren’t as sturdy but you could hop to any song you wished just by lifting the stylus. So records didn’t die, they were merely relegated to less demanding environments where they weren’t so inconvenient.

Eight tracks were, as anyone over thirty knows, replaced by cassette tapes. Smaller and more “convenient” cassettes had the obvious advantages of losing the “thunk” when changing tracks and the ability to scan to any particular part of the album. Thing is, scanning to any spot on the album took some doing. You could either fast forward or rewind to get there but getting there wasn’t assured. You were still faced with the prospect of listening to some unintended stuff as you were traveling through the magnetic wonder of sound reproduction. Records lost a lot of ground to cassette tapes but they remained viable because in some instances records were more convenient.

Enter the CD. While radio stations raved about the fidelity users loved the durability and the ability to instantaneously jump to any portion of the recording. This is when records died. What is the point of a platter when you’ve got a CD? CD’s are far sturdier, easier to own and maintain, you can listen to any particular track with a touch of a button, why bother with easily scratched vinyl? The record, despite the protestations of audiophiles, died an inglorious death and, in truth, didn’t put up much of a fight.

Anyone reading this far is either completely on board with the whole convenience concept or mentally arguing that each iteration of music media not only presented a more convenient way of listening to a performance but also an increase in fidelity. If you are in the “fidelity is the thing” camp congrats, you are appraising the argument in a critical manner. What is needed is an example where fidelity didn’t matter.

Few will recall the days when digital audio tapes ruled the world. The reason few remember those days is because they didn’t happen. Turtles were once the dominant species, phone lines were usually shared 50 years ago, and CBs were the preferred way of wire free communication in the 70’s (keep on truckin!), but digital audio tape never ruled the audio spectrum. Were fidelity the driving source, they should have. The thing to remember about digital audio tapes is that they replicated CD’s perfectly and that they scared the music industry so badly the assembled execs all wore pairs of “oops, I crapped my pants”.
Trouble was digital audio tapes had all the flaws of a cassette tape and the only advantage was better fidelity. There was no convenience advantage and digital audio tapes aren’t widely used today.

Along the way the music industry sold a lot of recordings in different formats. You had it on a record, you bought it on an eight track, got it on the cassette and replaced it for good and all on a CD. Dubbed the CD to a tape and listened to it in a car. When computers came along you could get rid of the horrible songs that filled a many albums and just listen to the stuff you liked. Even more convenience!

Presented with the choice of going to a record store and buying a CD or downloading something from the internet music listeners choose, let me see here, I’ve got notes and all, one moment.. More convenience!

The music industry failed to understand what they were actually selling. The mistake was imagining they were selling something they weren’t. Something physical. The response of the industry has been lawsuits, the response should have been something easier than Napster.

You’re rightly thinking it is crazy, perhaps impossible, to stick the genie back in the bottle. Once people know they can get a great catalogue for free using P2P applications like LimeWire where is the incentive for people to actually pay for music?

A good question. People don’t, as we have seen, pay for music. They pay for convenience.  And people give it right up for the easy path. Fast food, 7-11’s, hookers you can have sex with without remorse, Starbucks, Windows, etc are all there because they are easy. They are all convenient.  Yeah, you could make a better burger than McDonalds for the same cash, you can buy a bag of tortilla chips and nacho cheese cheaper than 7-11 and you can probably get laid for less money than you’d spend on a hooker. Certainly it is cheaper to make your own coffee than to hit the Starbucks and Linux is cheaper than Windows. But these things dominate because they are easy, because they are convenient.

When the music industry starts to sell what people want instead of trying to protect what they’ve sold for years they’ll get better. Until they realize what they are selling they will try to keep protecting a business that only existed because of technological limitations.


  • Bravo.

    Gil had this to say on Nov 19, 2007 Posts: 3
  • I completely agree. Even with Napster and Kazaa, I was willing to pay iTunes for the songs I wanted, properly ripped and tagged. Before that, I spent hours downloading and hours more ensuring that what I downloaded wasn’t crap. With iTunes, I have the convenience of downloading exactly what I want. I’ll pay for that.

    Now NBC claims that iTunes ruined the music industry and they don’t want Apple to ruin the TV industry. They really need to read your article. People want convenience and will pay for it.

    sjohnson717 had this to say on Nov 19, 2007 Posts: 1
  • The way goodwill towards the recording industry continues to reach new lows is intensely pleasing.


    Benji had this to say on Nov 19, 2007 Posts: 927
  • Insightful, and explains why iTunes and the iPod took off.

    Dave Marsh had this to say on Nov 19, 2007 Posts: 44
  • and why Apple TV hasn’t…

    Dave Marsh had this to say on Nov 19, 2007 Posts: 44
  • Do tell, Dave. I’m interested how this has to do with Apple TV

    John Reynolds had this to say on Nov 19, 2007 Posts: 2
  • Well written but ultimately misguided.

    Say the recording companies didn’t sue Napster and instead put out their own marketplace. They would be implicitly recognizing Napster’s right to sell there music.

    Now Apple comes along and begins setting up iTunes, if Napster doesn’t pay for the music, why should they? The music industry pays for content to be produced, and there is no reason why people can’t develop equally easy to use systems given enough time and immunity from legal prosecution. The music industry has the right to decide who gets to sell their music, they paid for it after all.

    simo66 had this to say on Nov 19, 2007 Posts: 78
  • Great article (and I enjoyed reading the “Girl scouts singing” link too).

    And agree with the comment that iTunes & iPod are incredibly convenient, while the AppleTV takes some effort (even when you can buy the shows in the US)

    Greg Alexander had this to say on Nov 19, 2007 Posts: 228
  • Hi Simo,
    I don’t think it’s misguided. It would probably still need some lawsuits though, I agree.

    It’s a carrot or stick argument - online downloads are a huge carrot that people are really going for. The music industry responds with a big stick (lawsuits), which doesn’t make their product more appealing in the slightest… when they could have responded with a better carrot (and a small stick)

    Greg Alexander had this to say on Nov 19, 2007 Posts: 228
  • The music industry has the right to decide who gets to sell their music

    That is not in dispute.  Chris’s assertion is that the labels have misinterpreted the important value aspect of the product they’re selling, which is convenience.  I think it’s probably a gross simplification but not misguided.  Convenience is an important element in the equation but just one of many.

    I think the industry’s biggest problem right now is the inability to recognize new models (or perhaps overt fear of them instead) rather than embracing them.  As Chris points out, they have actively sought to crush new technologies that have eventually gone on to make them billions of dollars.  It’s a lesson they continue to fail to learn.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Nov 19, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • The real question is what are you purchasing when you buy music? Until the advent of personal computers everyone assumed that when you paid your money you owned the product and its content. Then the computer geeks decided that you don’t own software, you license it from the person or company that created the program. It didn’t take the music industry very long to decide that you don’t really own the content, just all those old vinyl records you bought in the analog past. I guess I don’t really own the daily newspaper either.

    flyboy had this to say on Nov 21, 2007 Posts: 30
  • The real question is what are you purchasing when you buy music?

    I agree with you, but what is your answer, flyboy?

    Benji had this to say on Nov 22, 2007 Posts: 927
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