Monday, January 19, 2009

man! this is one, long song

I was listening to the Sound Opinions podcast on my walk to work this morning and as they were discussing the agreement to remove digital rights management (DRM) software from iTunes-purchased music, my mind start to wander back in time. What interested me was the conflation of digital music capabilities and their relationship to singles and albums created by artists and marketed by big record companies. Way back when, as a ten-year old haunting the corridors of Omaha’s Westroads mall, about 1975, I remember endlessly buying 45s for $.79 - $.99. Each song was lovingly selected after having listened to AM radio (WOW and KOIL in Omaha back in those days) and remembering just which songs Kasey Kasem played on the countdown the previous Sunday night. The “record buyers” back in those days primarily bought 45s and eschewed the LPs that were marketed and pushed on FM radio – you had to be driving a 1970 yellow Chevelle SS to be someone who actually bought complete albums on vinyl or 8-track: 10cc, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Aerosmith, ELO, Blue Oyster Cult, and the Steve Miller Band. Record sale profits were based on the sale of millions of singles and dozens of one- or two-hit single releases from artists; seriously, take a gander at the top singles of 1975 (1976 was even more amazing for pure singles):

Love Will Keep Us Together – Captain and Tennille (saw them twice in concert!)
Rhinestone Cowboy – Glen Campbell
Philadelphia Freedom – Elton John
Before the Next Teardrop Falls – Freddie Fender
My Eyes Adored You – Frankie Valli
Shining Star – Earth, Wind, and Fire
Fame – David Bowie
Laughter in the Rain – Neil Sedaka
One of These Nights – The Eagles
Thank God I’m a Country Boy – John Denver

I owned all of them on single except Freddie Fender (my brother had the album…on 8-track…in his Chevelle), and Fame by Bowie. I’d guess that if you were a music buyer back then you might have owned a couple of them on LP. My point being this: we’ve been through entire eras where music was purchased primarily as singles and not albums. At some point in the late 1980s sales seems to move full force toward full-length albums; about the time near the tail end of cassettes (awful!), the birth of CDs, and the industry’s opportunity to eliminate singles – they no longer provided a format for singles sales. By that time music had become much more compact to carry and people didn’t much seem to care that they had to buy the $18 CD just to get the two or three songs they wanted. But, we’ve always been a singles species even through we passed through that bit of history where they weren’t available for purchase. How do I know? How about the 71 volumes of NOW! That’s What I Call Music in the UK and 29 volumes in the U.S? The UK version has been around much longer (they are even more singles oriented than the U.S. – see, Top of the Pops) but when the U.S. version launched in 1998 it proved very successful. All of the U.S. Now CDs have gone platinum and almost half have gone to #1.

What this sort of proves, via my twisted logic, is that the idea behind selling singles on iTunes – and the “sky is falling because no one buys full albums anymore” argument –is a false ideal. The industry has known forever that singles are what props up the whole building and they even spent the entire 1990s proving the premise true once again by cramming endless singles bands down our throats: Britney, Backstreet Boys, N*Sync, Destiny’s Child, Hanson, Christina Aguilera, Hootie, blah blah blah. I can safely assume that no one has ever uttered this phrase “Man, that new Backstreet Boys album really connects with me. The B-side was such a surprise after the smooth musicianship of the A-side.”

The shock of the DRM implementation decision was that the record companies (it’s always been their requirement, not Apple’s…although they certainly didn’t suffer) felt the need to limit the movement of legally-purchased digital music. It almost seemed as if they were saying that since they couldn’t rely on the big dollars for selling albums as a single unit that they needed to figure out a way to place limitations on the singles that people were picking-and-choosing from the iTunes store. They feigned amazement when they watched as people purchased only the song Delilah by the Plain White T’s instead of dropping ten bucks for the rest of that crappy album. They have for two decades been essentially getting $12-$20 for one song – now they only got $.99. They are, after all, the ones who trained us to love singles and it was forty years spent getting us ready for the digital music era that no one apparently foresaw arriving. Suddenly, they were lost.

DRM was something that was simply a petulant child’s reaction to losing money – taking a ball and going home. It only caused consumers to react poorly when confronted with the idea that legally-purchased music was limited in its digital use for the purchaser. DRM wasn’t ever going to stop pirating or free downloading any more than naming a drug czar was going to stop drug use – it was just a stupid, knee jerk reaction. The vast majority of music lovers will pay a reasonable price for music. For those of use that buy full albums we might pay something like $5 at (yours truly), or $16 at a local record shop. It depends – if emusic doesn’t have the release then I’ll go to Melody Records and buy the CD. What I won’t do, for whatever reason, is buy a 12-track full-length release from iTunes for $10 if there are going to be restrictions. And, in my guilt-by-association mindset, I won’t buy a single from iTunes for $.99 for the same reason – restrictions.

I don’t see any of this as directly related to piracy or the flow of free music: that’s another issue to me (hey, I hadn’t read the slate article before I starting spouting off). All of my music is paid for because I think the artists deserved the money. What DRM did was force consumers to try to separate the artist from the company and the artist always ended up getting punished by the deeds of the industry. It was too hard to figure out if Prince or Sony was being the jerk in the process because the end result was simply that we were paying too much, living with restrictions, and fighting back against the entire beast.

I think I’ll let you go. If you got this far, well done; if not…well, you’re not reading this so I have nothing to say to you.

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