A pound of guilt

Reading time: 3 mins

Needless to say, portions of the internet are abuzz, discussing the ins, outs and possible impact of the way Radiohead have handled their recent album sales (they are allowing the buyer to set the price when downloading the MP3s, and yes, you can set the price to zero – more on that here).

Having heard on the radio that the band won’t be releasing (at least not in the short term) the sales figures, I am starting to wonder why they did it. Aside from the obvious “all the money goes to us and not a record label” reason of course. Protecting their artistic investment is fairly valid, rather than having earlier versions and whatnot floating around the internet, and it is pretty obvious that the band don’t place value on chart positions and so on.

However they must have known that releasing their album, without a record label, through their own website, would be looked on as a test case for a way forward in the industry. There seems to be the view that all record labels are evil, and the people that work for them are idiots. That is patently not true, yet they do seem to be slow to react, and let’s face it, there is hardly a lack of opinion in this area…

So, if Radiohead aren’t going to release figures then the record labels won’t find out if it was a success or, and you never know, if it failed. More importantly the same holds true for other bands.

But, on the flip side of this, the way people are dealing with this neatly focusses attention back on the consumer. By allowing you to set the price of purchase, the price of your integrity, then perhaps this is a (rather bizarre) yardstick of how humanity is fairing.

When it comes to digital content, it’s not that hard to find out where to go to be able to steal it. It’s a little like entering a new neighbourhood and learning which bars to hang out in to get the best score… umm… allegedly. However many people, myself included, argue that what we are really doing is previewing the content first, before purchasing it later on.

As an aside: TV shows are an odd one. I downloaded the entire first series of Heroes from the internet, but as I pay my license fee (and it’s shown on BBC2, yes?) then surely I’ve already paid for it?? Ditto for 24 and Smallville which I pay for with my Sky package and by being blasted with adverts. No?

Music wise, this kind of ‘preview downloading’ is akin to the days when you could stand in your local record store and ask to listen to the latest Adam Ant album. However as no-one shops in stores these days, and typically most online music stores only offer a 30sec snippet from which you can preview a track (completely useless for a lot of Pink Floyd tracks, many of which seem to just be starting around the 25sec mark), then currently this is the only way to replicate such a service.

Except it’s not, is it. Services like Pandora, and Last.fm allow you to search for, and listen to, entire tracks and albums. So why do people still download them?

Because it’s free.

It doesn’t cost anything (internet access prices aside), and you have no emotional buy in when you download music tracks from the internet. You only have your guilt to deal with and the price that you pay for that varies from person to person.

The question then becomes, how many people will suffer the guilt, and how many will “do the right thing”?

9 comments

  1. One other thing that last.fm does, in addition to letting you trial tracks, is gather stats about what its users are listening to. Drowned In Sound posted an article yesterday giving the last.fm stats for the new Radiohead album.

    It’s not sales figures, but does give an idea about how many people have downloaded it. Seems that 12500 people have listened to the first track in the first 12 hours, compared with the nearly 367000 people who’ve listened to OK Computer.

    I don’t think that’s too bad for the first day.

  2. I see in the news today that Madge has also left her record label (Warner Music), and she’s not going to sign with another, instead choosing to sign a deal with a promotions company in LA.

    Radiohead not re-signing with a record label is one thing. Madonna is another thing entirely. Granted, she’s getting $120m in the deal, so it’s not quite the same.

    I’m also absolutely 100% sure that the ‘Head are going to make a lot of money from In Rainbows, and hundreds of thousands of people are going to listen to it. I don’t need album charts, sales figures or Last.fm stats to tell me that.

  3. True Matt, but the record industry DOES.

    They still haven’t clued into the Long Tail thinking and whilst In Rainbows would, if it charted, be a hit, the value in making tracks so easily available and DRM free SHOULD mean good repercussions further down the tail.

  4. But that makes perfect sense. If they are treating this as a serious experiment, what good would releasing short-term figures or figures after only a couple of days? Headline grabbing, perhaps, but not of use, surely?

  5. As an aside: TV shows are an odd one. I downloaded the entire first series of Heroes from the internet, but as I pay my license fee (and it’s shown on BBC2, yes?) then surely I’ve already paid for it?? Ditto for 24 and Smallville which I pay for with my Sky package and by being blasted with adverts. No?

    The TV people would say ‘no’, because you didn’t pay them to watch the show in the format or at the time they deemed suitable. It’s similar to the ridiculousness of commercial software: the consumer never actually pays for the software, they only pay for the licence to use the software. That doesn’t gel with the consumer’s mindset/the most generally accepted concept of ownership (ie I pay for a product, therefore the product is mine).

    Yes, you are right to think that you’ve paid to watch Heroes because you pay a licence fee to the BBC and the BBC broadcasts it, but what’s really happening is that you’ve paid for the privilege of watching it only in that format and under those conditions, and no others. It’s the same reason why TV networks in the US tried to force TiVo to prohibit fast-forwarding through/cutting out commercials (did they succeed?), since for them it’s a condition of their content provision for the commercials to be forced on the viewer; in other words, if the viewer doesn’t see the ads, they haven’t paid for the ‘licence’ to view the show.

    What makes a mockery of this attitude of the TV networks, of course, is the humble VCR (or these days, the DVD-R, I suppose). If the consumer is allowed to copy a broadcast, with ads removed if they choose, then they have in effect broken the ‘licence’. But of course there’s no punishment for it, because it was declared perfectly legal in the courts. As it should be!

  6. I wouldn’t say that ‘preview downloading’ is quite akin to standing in HMV with a set of earphones on. After all, you can’t take the track playing in the record store home with you and re-use it – you need to buy the CD to do that.

    I’d also query the supposed moral right to download TV shows from the states, that may or may not be (eventually) broadcast in the UK some months later. For one thing, what if those programmes appeared in Britain on a premium channel that you don’t personally subscribe to?

    I quite agree with the arguement that, as consumers, we should not be charged multiple times for the same content – and so, if we buy a CD or DVD, we should be allowed to make copies for our own personal use. But downloading a digital copy of something that you may or may not pay for some time in the future is wrong.

  7. MacDara, well put, cheers for expanding on my muddled thoughts. You are quite right as is…

    Richard. It is wrong to download a digital copy…

    But, and I think with thanks to everyones comments that I’m beginning to get my head around this, my point is that that is (right or wrong) the reality we are currently in. Isn’t the smarter option to try and find a way to get what we currently have to work?

    Can I throw drugs back in the ring (not literally, you’d all be licking white powder of the carpet.. ugh). It’s fairly accepted, by those that have studied such things, that the more you try and surpress casual drug usage, the further underground it goes and the WORSE it becomes.

    Rather than force downloaders to go to greater lengths (because they will as they have ‘established (in their own minds at least) a reason for doing what they do) why not work with them to find ways that work for most?

    There will always be those who break laws, no matter how lax and free they are, but I’d warrant the majority of people are on the law-abiding side of things, even if they are in a grey area (if I can record a TV show onto DVD, and then rip that DVD to video file on my PC, why can’t I just skip the manual stage and download it… or is that manual stage my ‘payment’ for breaking the agreement?)

    When I’m thinking about anything along these lines, I do tend to try and avoid the extreme cases – those people who wouldn’t dream of downloading anything illegally, and those who don’t blink an eyelid and will continue to find ways around any legal, or technology barriers.

    For those of us in the middle then, to build on what Richard mentioned “downloading a digital copy of something that you may or may not pay for some time in the future is wrong” AT THE MOMENT. Surely this has to change in the future?

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