5. Music is like water – but it's not water

I don’t know what it is about Dutch people in the music and media business — but if there’s one idea they’re antagonistic towards, it’s the notion that music is like water.

If you spend any real time investigating music online, you come across the idea that we are heading into an age of ‘music-like-water‘. It’s abundant, you can turn it on and off like a tap and as long as you keep paying your monthly bill / flat fee / levie / music tax or whatever it gets called, you will have access to all the music you can drink and bathe in.

You won’t own any of it, but any time you want to listen, it’s just there.

It’s an appealing notion on some levels. It does get around the whole problem of download prices, peer to peer networks, etc. There’s still a premium ‘bottled water’ market, but nobody’s going to fill their bath with Evian, so why try to sell it to them in that way?

The ‘music-like-water’ solution is intuitively convincing, optimistic, egalitarian, well-meant and mostly wrong.

I’d heard the phrase a lot. It gets a good deal of press coverage, because as metaphors go, it’s a fairly compelling one and one that is communicated easily in just a few column inches. David Kusek’s Forbes article explains the concept best (skip the ad to read the article).

It sounds really great: one flat monthly fee, all the music you can eat, fair and equitable distribution of revenues between owners of recordings, composers and performers, no more piracy and a greatly expanded revenue base for the music business.

But in the spirit of the ongoing series of lessons I learned from the Dutch, I have to say I agree with the overwhelming majority of musicians, music business and media people I spoke to while in Amsterdam recently: it misunderstands how people consume music.

‘Music consumption’ does not mean ‘buying and listening to music’. The relationship between recorded music and the people who pay for it is much more complex and interesting than that.

People collect music. They construct personal histories from it. They generate meaning by associating context and emotion to it. They connect it to the other music they own and their whole experience of music to create what my colleague Professor Tim Wall calls ‘maps of musical meaning’.

I will probably never want to listen to U2 again in my life, but because of my own personal history of musical experience (and the fact that I was 14 in 1981), I need to own those records. I don’t want to turn on the tap, but not having those albums would somehow betray my own personal narrative of discovery.

Likewise, there are albums I own not because I like them, but because they help me understand other records. Chas Jankel‘s ‘Questionnaire’ is a good example of that. One good track, a couple of modest singles and a whole lot of filler — but it makes sense of a good deal of Ian Dury‘s work and the directions that the music was pulling in.

Okay, so perhaps I pay more attention to this stuff than the average punter… and perhaps I don’t.

But people don’t consume music the way they consume cable television, as Kusek suggests. The relationship is more akin to the relationship that they have with books.

We don’t need a utility like the water companies (and, God forbid, like Severn Trent Water). We could do with some public libraries, however.

But simplifying the way in which this works and predicting a future where everyone pays a flat fee all the time puts waaay too much trust in the ways in which these things would be administrated. Elton John and Universal Music would probably do okay out of this arrangement. I wonder if everyone down the bottom of the pecking order would do quite so well.

Essentially, Leonhard and Kusek are advocating a globalised music administrative bureaucracy. Another one. While there are times I’d be happy to just listen to something that came out of an internet ‘tap’, and while I agree that music can be made to fit that model under certain consumption conditions, I think it all falls down quite quickly as a ‘fix’ for the music industries (though I can see why Rick Rubin, now co-chair of Columbia, is in favour).

Perhaps worst of all, the ‘music-like-water’ thesis assumes that all music is an undifferentiated mass of sound of equal value. And though it’s just as problematic, Thurston Revival’s £100 single raises the important point that this stuff is not just commerce — it’s art too.

Yes, music can be like water — but it’s important to remember that it’s not water.

8 thoughts on “5. Music is like water – but it's not water

  1. Hi Andrew, from Portugal

    But people don’t consume music the way they consume cable television, as Kusek suggests. The relationship is more akin to the relationship that they have with books.

    By saying this I assume you’re implying that everyone in the whole world enjoys music in the same way. Well, I think this is short-sighted. You can be right about wealthy North-american and European listeners but I’m afraid you’re wrong about the way music is appreciated in other parts of the world, for instance in Brazil and other Latin-American nations. For these societies, music is something that while it is deeply ingrained in daily life it is, at the same time, a disposable product in relation to other material goods that are essential for staying alive: clothes, water, food, a shelter, etc.

    So, yeah, claiming that music is like water doesn’t mean that it always has to be unexpensive. Just think about Evian and Perrier. While water is a universal good that everyone can have access to by paying a monthly small fee, some people are willing to pay an extra just because of the brand or some other immaterial aspect.

    In a case a flatfee is implemented, there will still be a small group of music fans willing to pay more for an exclusive release, just like the disbox package that Radiohead are going to launch.

  2. Dubber says:

    You’re absolutely right — and the fact that the ways in which different people listen to music differ so greatly is one of the reason a one-size-fits-all flat tax for ‘music-like-water’ cannot work.

    The book analogy, though flawed, was just to illustrate that people don’t just turn music on and off. They do all sorts of different things including dancing, collecting, studying and sharing. It’s cultural, social and personal.

    Like literature, music is not essential for survival, but nor is it simply a consumer item. It defines and reflects culture, contributes greatly to the wellbeing and welfare of a society and has educational, social and psychological effects.

    Like all media, it has the capacity to aspire to great art, and the ability to exist for purely commercial reasons. It can be like water. It can be like air. It can be like petrol and it can be like pretty much anything else you care to name if you put your mind to it.

    I’m afraid this comes back to my antagonism towards totalising theories: saying that the future of the music business is in selling ‘music-like-water’ is about as helpful as saying that in the future, all meals will be dispensed from a vending machine.

    As a rule of thumb, you’ll always know when a commentator has either grossly oversimplified things or is just plain wrong: they’ll have used the word ‘future’ in a sentence.

  3. Nick says:

    Hey Andrew,

    I just wanted to clarify what I think is implicit in this post: that people consume music in different ways and there are varying levels of importance placed on music depending on who you talk to.

    The music-like-water talk doesn’t irk me because it’s a “prediction of the future”, but because it’s presented as “the only way”. Given that people experience music in different ways, there’s no reason to think there’s not room in the “future” ;-) for a la carte, subscription, ad-supported AND music like water models.

    I happen to fully agree with you that once a song is released, it belongs to the listener: There’s no way Elvis Presley could’ve known the effect that “Heartbreak Hotel” would have on the millions of people who now use that as a “bookmark” to some momentous (or mundane) emotional moment in their lives.

    But the fact is, some people don’t connect to music this way. And to them, they’ll probably prefer tap water.

  4. Rasmus says:

    Andrew, you seem to be basing your article on the way your own generation (and mine) consumes music – the same generation that has always been used to music as a product not a service. Even a physical product.

    The new generations growing up with p2p, Ipods and most important of all, playlists, just don’t care to own the music the way you and I do. They still use music to tell themselves and everyone else aboout their identity though. They just do it by going to concerts and listing hundreds of favorite bands on their social networking profiles – do they even own a bookshelve?

    I believe supscription services will happen but I agree that it won’t be the nly solution. A basic service and a more expensive one. And as long as our generatio is around, cd’s and lp’s which preserves the physical art. But the future is committed to digital art. And don’t forget for the the younger generations music already feels free – like water.

  5. Dubber says:

    I do get that music consumption is changing, and that it can be broadly split up into generations — though that’s contestable because it works differently in different genre categories. My son (14) enjoys two main kinds of music. One he collects and owns (CDs, mostly but also other formats) and the other he pretty much listens to on Pandora.

    But ultimately, we all seem to be in agreement on the main thread here: and that’s the fact that audience relationship with music consumption is complicated, and it’s unlikely to get simpler any time soon.

    Mandating a universal subscription method as a one-size-fits all solution (even with the sideline in ‘bottled water’) is a utopian ideal — and, as with all such utopian ideals, it’s misguided and kind of broken — and you need to lose far more than you’ll gain in order to make it stick.

  6. spinmeister says:

    Good discussion here. Allow me to try to add a dimension often overlooked. When discussing the future of the music industry, one can’t just look the consumer side and what makes them behave in the way they do and try to anticipate which way they will turn. That’s a highly multidimensional problem as this thread rightfully points out. Cultural and generational differences are two of them, but there are quite a few more.

    However, what I would really like to add to this discussion, is the issue of what motivates and enables music makers and the people who do things around music – from photography and artwork to software, from instrument makers to marketers. i.e. the producing side of the market place. I think the major wild card is, that the producing side of the house isn’t only motivated by money. The argument could be made, that most of the better one’s aren’t fundamentally motivated by money at all, but by the need to be heard or seen.

    That reality alone guarantees that there will always be new relationships between producers and consumers especially as technology changes and therefore (as a fallout) culture and legal frameworks change.

    While Orlowski may bash the creative commons for his own commercial reasons, there is a reasons it’s becoming so widely used. Creators of art (including musicians, photographers, writers and even software developers) are flocking to new intellectual property models, because being heard/seen/noticed is more important than making money.

    Sure, some people will make some money using various business models. But more and more decent art will be free.

    A big reason is that it takes less time and money to produce, market and distribute decent quality. That’s due to the amazing technology evolution. High end tools are becoming affordable (inexpensive or free) like never before. For making music, pictures, software and marketing campaigns. The supply side is growing quickly (good stuff as well as crap) and economics 101 suggests what that will do to prices.

    This would/should already have occurred sooner, if it wasn’t for the cartel like behavior of the music industry, which have been successful in artificially throttling the supply side for years. With that throttling disappearing, prices have only one place to go: down. There will be fewer musician millionaires in the future. Heck, there were few – if any – before the 1970s.

    Arguably the last 30-40 years will prove to be a short blip in history – the one special time when musicians could become rich just by making music.

  7. “Arguably the last 30-40 years will prove to be a short blip in history – the one special time when musicians could become rich just by making music.”

    this makes me feel better about the fact that whilst i love making music (and currently have a couple of albums worth of material), I only seem to spend a very small amount of time doing it.

    But on the other hand, I do need for it to be one of the income streams that between them just about supports me at the moment and may one day provide some financial security.


  8. Charli Holt says:

    That’s so exciting, I should say!
    Music is everything for me. But I’ve never heard this phrase, to say nothing of this interesting comparison, Dubber!
    I took a great plesure reading this post!
    Best wishes,
    Charli Holt