Commoditising music?


We watched a video recently by web strategist and “media futurist” Gerd Leonhard:

Click here for his blog post on the video.

There are many themes and trends in this talk – delivered in an engaging and humorous manner – which jumped out as very relevant to what Mixcloud is doing (and therefore pretty encouraging) . For example, consumer engagement (pull rather than push advertising), the remix/creation culture, filtering the noise, content sharing, following/tracking people and their content, the importance of data (as content), the shift away from ownership of music.

However there is one theme and metaphor that I would like to discuss as it has come up again this morning here:

PlayLouder MSP (UK) – PaidContent reports that the digital music provider is to facilitate the launch by one of the UK�s internet service providers (ISPs) of a service which would offer unlimited music and which would compensate record companies for songs illegally downloaded by its customers. The article says that PlayLouder MSP originally tried to launch such a service, which would allow users to legitimately download from peer-to-peer (P2P) networks such as Gnutella and BitTorrent, in 2003. According to the article Playlouder�s co-founder Paul Sanders would not name the ISP but Virgin Media was believed to have held talks with PlayLouder MSP in July 2008.”


There has been talk of this “pipe dream” (excuse my pun) for a while, but now it seems to be turning into a reality.

The metaphor that Gerd used to describe this unlimited music pipe is water.

  • We don’t whip out our credit cards every time we run the bath or flush the toilet.
  • While Gerd is a visitor at Google HQ he doesn’t need to worry about the water he uses.
  • The distribution costs are negligible once the pipes are built and running (even more negligible for the “music pipe” – i.e. bandwidth).

Everyone has a right to access water wherever they are, and it is paid for collectively based on what one uses in the comfort on their own home. Is the same true of music? Do we have a right to consume music whenever and wherever we are without having to worry about costs? And should the model be the same as that of water? E.g. the guy who fills up his home swimming pool from the water supply is rightly charged a higher bill. Is that the future paradigm for music consumption – pay as you go?

The metaphor starts to get really interesting when you consider things like wastage, gutters and sewers (what happens to digital music after is has been consumed and enjoyed? Is there a shelf-life? Is there such thing as “waste-music”?); and the water cycle – is digital music or will it be “recycled”? Perhaps this is the trend of the ever-increasing remix and mashup culture?

Finally, the all-important question: does this “commoditise” music? Certainly not based on this definition of commodity:

“A physical substance, such as food, grains, and metals, which is interchangeable with another product of the same type, and which investors buy or sell…”

However music is consumed, and whatever format or means used to deliver it, the essence of the product remains unchanged – it is creative, it is emotive, it connects people, it inspires, it moves, it challenges. It is human. And it is not interchangeable. People in the content industries sometimes forget that most consumers don’t care where and how they get their content – it’s the content itself that counts.

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