The celestial jukebox

It’s puzzling how large enterprises can be critically dependent on small, fragile elements and not really know it. Newspapers until recently thought of themselves as vital and desirable components of a democratic society, only to find that they were really just vehicles for advertising, particularly classified advertising, and once those ads found other, cheaper outlets the whole newspaper model began to crumble.

Blockbuster Video literally destroyed itself with one fateful decision. It had an arrangement with studios that the initial release of a movie on videotape would be very expensive, $100 or so, with many months going by before a cheaper version could be released to stores. When DVDs came along they were offered the same arrangement, but for some reason they declined. So the studios released their DVDs to video stores and retail stores at the same time, and many former rental customers decided they’d just as soon pay $15 for their own copy than rent one for $5.

The music industry never realized, or at least never admitted, that the shift from singles to albums in the 60s was the key to building up a vastly more lucrative enterprise, with the price of the default purchase unit rising five or sixfold. But when the iTunes model effectively reintroduced the single, it became clear that a lot of the songs that had been bought in the past weren’t really bought for their own sake, but because they were part of the package that contained the songs people wanted. These days many, many fewer songs are being sold, lots less money is being made, and groups are beginning to give up on the idea of releasing them in album-sized groups.

Digital music has broken the commercial music model in many ways. One is to make prominent the question of what exactly you are buying when you buy a recording. I remember in the 90s being increasingly annoyed that I was paying so much money to essentially move songs I already “owned” from one format (vinyl) to another (CD), primarily by buying boxed CD sets of artists I’d followed over the years. But the truth is that I’d never “owned” the recording itself, just the physical object that contained it; if a record got broken or warped or scratched beyond listenability, I lost not only the physical object but the rights to play the songs it contained, and had to pay for both when I replaced it.

And now that no physical object contains the song, the question of what exactly you have bought when you buy a song is even harder to answer. Can you give away a copy? No. Can you somehow sell your copy? Not really. Can you lend your copy to someone else? Not really. Can you play your copy for someone else? It depends on the context, e.g. OK at home, perhaps at a non-profit event, not in a restaurant or retail establishment or paid admission event. Can you post it on your website? No.

Really what the music industry would like to be true is that you have purchased the right to hear that song on demand, and no more; at least, such a restriction would prevent the various other uses of the song that might cut into future sales. But it is difficult to come up with a working music distribution system that exactly matches this goal. When cassette tapes came out the music industry went to extreme lengths to try to prevent music buyers from making tapes of their records; their fear was that the tapes might be re-sold and so cut into future sales, but in prohibiting taping they would also have prevented the quite legitimate use of cassettes to let the buyer more easily hear the music on demand, e.g. in the car, so efforts to restrict taping ended up failing completely.

Another difficulty, less obvious but no less real, is that the industry benefits from the confusion over ownership vs. right to hear on demand, and which way it leans in a particular circumstance depends on which position makes for additional income. A stand against home taping not only hedges against the possibility of someone selling taped copies, it forces someone who wants a cassette copy for the car to buy one, even if they already own the record; in this case, the industry says that it is physical ownership that is important. But if you want to play a record you own as background music in a shop, the industry insists that you buy a separate license to do so; in this case, physical ownership is de-emphasized and right to hear on demand becomes the critical factor.

And now comes a new model, the celestial jukebox, which, whether or not it ends up being commercially viable, at least does a good job of implementing the idea of right to hear on demand. The main services using this model right now are Rhapsody and Napster. With both you pay a monthly subscription fee, and in exchange get the right to play any of millions of songs on you computer whenever you want; for a small additional fee you can also transfer those songs to a portable music player. As long as you continue your subscription, you can play the songs; when your subscription lapses, the songs become unplayable.

Assuming that such a service will operate reliably and indefinitely (a big assumption), I don’t see why it wouldn’t be vastly preferable to the old model where you pay for the right to hear specific songs (and, with physical recordings, the right to sell your copy). The open question, of course, is whether or not there is a price point where such a service is not only viable but makes the sellers at least as much money as the old model. Right now the services are price at about $15 per month. This certainly ought to be attractive to anyone who was inclined to buy more than one CD (or fifteen iTunes songs) per month, but if it only attracted those people then less money would be made overall. Will the promise of unlimited access attract people who right now buy less than that?

Our own situation is as usual an oddball one, but perhaps you’ll find bits and pieces in it that will apply to your own approach. While in college record purchases were a significant part of my budget. I bought new, and haunted the bargain bins in search of treasures. When I left college I probably threw out six hundred albums because I could fit no more than 400 into my VW bug when I moved partway across the country. I continued to buy vinyl until I was married in 1985. At that point I had much less time and interest for music, which fit conveniently with our switch to CDs, since there weren’t many available at that point. Around 1990 I stopped listening to new music altogether (I think the last CD I bought by a new band was Nirvana’s Nevermind), but as boxed sets of old recordings became big in the early 90s I began to restore some of my old, long gone favorites with those. By the early 2000s I owned perhaps a couple of hundred CDs.

Then bluegrass music became part of our lives. Since bluegrass is more heavily dependent than most commercial music on historical repertoire, most good bluegrass musicians are strongly steeped in the classics of the genre, and so for us to get there we had a lot of listening to do. Fortunately this is the age of reissues, where nearly everything decent that was ever recorded commercially can be found on a CD somewhere, so we found ourselves adding CDs to the collection eight and ten at a time as we decided to study yet another historically important act. It didn’t take all that long before we had accumulated several hundred bluegrass CDs.

And still there are many, more to hear. Do we listen to all the CDs all the time? Not hardly. Usually we will play an artist through a few times, and sometimes we’ll want to revisit an artist for another few listens (e.g. Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin). But mostly those songs are there as a library, and when we decide to add some new songs to our own repertoire we will go and listen to every version of the song we own, noting differences and using them all to inform our own version. Quite often there are fifteen or twenty versions of a song, all of them good, none of them exactly as we would like to do the song, many with good ideas we appropriate.

Clearly we would be much better off subscribing to a library of every song ever recorded, rather than buying some subset of them to own. And for awhile back in 2004 or so I did subscribe to Rhapsody, using it mostly to look up songs that I wanted to hear but not buy. Back then, though, they did not have the option of transferring songs to a portable player, and having to go to my computer to hear the song wasn’t very convenient. I let the subscription lapse, and when they added an option later where one is allowed up to 25 free song plays per month I began using it again. More than once Chris and I crowded around the computer with our instruments and used Rhapsody to learn a song we didn’t want to buy.

Two things have changed since then: Rhapsody has added the option of moving songs to a portable player, and the cost of portable players has dropped dramatically. I was lured back in when Rhapsody ran an offer where you could have a free month of unlimited service if you would just watch a Coors ad; I watched the ad, used the service for a month, and found it pretty useful (especially because Chris and I are starting a project which requires us to learn hundreds of old folk songs we don’t yet know).

I figured the service would be much more useful if we could play the songs away from the computer, so I poked around and found a 4GB player from SanDisk which Dell would sell me for $45, as long as I would take pink. Hey, to save twenty bucks I can swallow my pride (and look at it as a theft deterrent). I also bought an 8GB memory chip the size of a fingernail for $15, and so now I can carry around about 200 hours of music.

I’ve been playing with this for a couple of weeks, and so far it has worked really well. Primarily I use it to download a huge number of recordings by an artist we aren’t all that familiar with but want to learn more about. For example, I loaded up about fifteen CDs by John Hartford, and Chris and I are listening through them as we drive to and from various gigs. (We use a cassette adapter in our eleven-year-old car stereo, which works out pretty well.)

The other main use of the device is to hold various chunks of music from my pre-bluegrass days that I think Chris might benefit from hearing; I never played music around the house in those days, so for the most part he’s never heard much aside from bluegrass. We’ve listened to some electronica from Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, some Aretha Franklin, some Los Lobos … I’m not trying to get him to enjoy what I enjoy, but I want him to have a deeper appreciation for the broad range of music that is out there, and one path to that is playing (and explaining) some of the broad range of music I know and understand.

My only regret right now is that there isn’t easier access to non-music audio, since lots of times we’re driving and just don’t want to hear any more music but would still like a bit of entertainment. Rhapsody doesn’t have audiobooks, and I can understand why. I’ve found some sources of old radio programs, but they aren’t very well organized or easily loaded onto the player. I did download some Bill Cosby albums as an experiment.

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4 thoughts on “The celestial jukebox

  1. John,

    I suppose I would if someone handed me one, but that isn’t likely here in the dryest part of Kentucky. We do keep a stash of Budweiser (!) in the pantry, for boiling our brats and adding to our beef stroganoff, but we keep it well hidden.

  2. pandora.com is free, but all you can do is give it examples of music you like (artists and/or songs) and let it play “similar” things. You can fine-tune the selection somewhat by marking songs that it selects as liked or disliked.

    It’s somewhere between a streaming music station such as radioparadise.com, where your only choice is to listen or not, and the for-pay services where you can pick every song. And it occasionally comes up with something I like a lot and had never heard of.

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