It’s time for a rant.
I am an avid downloader of music that I do not pay for. Only occasionally do I feel even a twinge of guilt about this. I felt such a twinge recently. So, good citizen that I am, I investigated the possibility of actually paying for downloaded music. I found, to my great chagrin, really, that there is no way I am going to pay for downloaded music at this point.
Let me explain.
First, something about myself. I am, perhaps, not the RIAA’s picture of the mp3 hungry internet hoodlum. I buy a lot of CDs. I also buy a lot of vinyl. I don’t know how much I have, but it’s in the thousands of albums. My stereo is worth more than my car. So, I am not averse to spending money on music, but I am very serious about the quality of that music. So, why steal?
Put simply, the record industry and their retail partners simply are not treating the digital age seriously. Or rather, they are treating it seriously, but only as an opportunity to seriously screw the consumer. Let’s take a look.
Take, for example, one of the best albums of last year, Bon Iver’s For Emma Forever Ago. On Amazon, I can buy this album on CD for $11.49. Now, let’s go to ITunes. First, to do this, I have to download a bloated piece of software onto my computer. So before I even start, I’m paying a cost I don’t pay at Amazon, and that I certainly don’t have to pay if I steal the music. But, then, the music is cheaper. A mere $7.99. (For what it’s worth, this is an example favorable to ITunes. The best album of the year, by Deerhunter, can be bought as a double album on Amazon for less than it can be bought on ITunes.)
If I download from ITunes, what I get is a DRM encoded file that I can only install on five computers, and that only plays on certain devices. Already, this is simply unacceptable. Between my wife and I we have four computers and two IPods. At our current rate, we’ll probably replace a computer every two years. This means that somewhere down the line, even if not now, DRM will prevent me from using my own music on my own computer. Not acceptable. Fortunately, as of yesterday it appears that Apple is stopping this nonsense, so that’s a step in the right direction. It hasn’t happened yet, though, so we’ll see if the price goes up when it does. At this point, however, ITunes is a nonstarter.
Amazon offers downloads as well, so let’s take a look there. For $8.49, Amazon will give me a download of the album at 256kbs. This is a pretty high quality mp3, but it is not cd quality. Mp3 is compressed format that does not preserve all of the data. Put simply, mp3s come in various qualities, depending on how much data is lost, and the higher the kbs number the less that is lost. The difference between a 256kbs recording and a cd of the same music is, in fact, audible. (In general, the sound of a mp3 is noticeably thinner than the cd sound.) So, I am saving three dollars, but I am getting an inferior product. Still, 256kbs is pretty good, so perhaps the $3 discount is fair. But I don’t only lose quality, I also don’t get the CD insert. This is minor in the case of Bon Iver, since there isn’t much on the insert, but it’s still art and information I’m not getting. The loss is more significant if I want to buy, say, Andras Schiff’s first volume of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. That insert contains a valuable essay and interview with the pianist. For an opera, of course, the CD comes with a libretto, which is indispensable. So, missing the insert is not always a minor thing.
Still, I have to say that saving $3 still sounds pretty good, and the insert is not always so important. But there is an important loss with the download, over and above the quality and the insert: with an mp3 I have no resale value. Let’s say that down the road it turns out I don’t really care for Bon Iver as much as I first thought. If I own the CD, I can see that album on half.com for (at the point of writing) $10! That means that I can recoup a significant portion of my losses if the album turns out to be a dud or if I weary of it. If that happens I’m out only $1.50. With the mp3, I’m out the full $7.99. The $3 savings isn’t sounding so good now.
Admittedly, usually one is out more than $1.50 when one sells a cd, but the point is general. When you buy a CD, you have an asset that retains some value. You can sell it when you are hard up for cash or when you simply want different music. Not so with an mp3. To make the loss more tangible, think of the physical CD like a coupon that is worth anywhere between three and ten dollars, that can be used when you grow tired of the CD. So, buying the CD at Amazon gives you better quality, liner notes, and a coupon that is worth $10. The mp3 is by far the worse deal.
There are other options out there. Emusic is a very good one. For $25 a month you can get 100 downloads—making the cost about 25 cents per track. That means the Bon Iver album can be had for about $2.25. That’s looking better, but there are two problems. First, you have to download 100 tracks each month to really be getting that price. If you only download Bon Iver one month, that album just cost you $25. Second, the quality at Emusic is about 192kbs. That is a difference that anyone can hear on almost any equipment, and it is particularly grating on good equipment. For me, at least, 192kbs is not worth paying for.
So the basic deal is this: when you pay for downloaded music online, you are typically getting inferior sound quality, you are not getting all of the information and art that comes with a cd booklet, and you have no resale value. The last bit is the often overlooked clincher—the resale value alone is usually worth more than the difference between the retail cd price and the download price! That means, essentially, that you are paying at least the same price for an inferior product when you pay for downloaded music.
The real kick in the ass is, it really doesn’t have to be this way. Record companies and retailers can enjoy much lower production and distribution costs in a world of downloaded music. I’m not privy to the numbers, of course, but as cheap as they are, cds, jewel cases and inserts do cost something, as does shipping and handling them. My guess is that there is at least one middleman who no longer needs to be paid. I also strongly suspect that the cost of promotion can go down significantly, since the retailers themselves do much of the promoting with samples, recommended purchases, and inventive search engines. There is an untapped world of market innovations out there that are simply not being utilized.
Everyone can be a winner at this point. The fact that everyone isn’t a winner is merely a sign that someone is refusing to adapt, and my suspicion is that rampant music theft is one of the responses to that. There will always have to be safeguards against digital piracy, but the music industry has little right to complain unless they offer a truly reasonable response in the form of a well priced product of reasonable quality.
(Note: I realize I have not defended the morality of digital piracy. It obviously doesn’t follow that because the music companies are offering an inferior product that anything goes, including theft. I do think that this ethical issue cannot be understood, however, unless it is clear why people should not be asked to pay the price they are currently asked to pay for the product they are stealing. A defense of that theft will have to wait for another occasion.)