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 Ã‚Â£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.