The Death of the Download?

I woke up this morning with blepharitis in both eyes. Not sure how it happened, but there you are. A considerable inconvenience, having to reschedule everything, go to the eye hospital, queue up, get seen and diagnosed, pick up the prescription, get the medications from the pharmacy, then go home. Start applying the stuff.

You could say that I was a bear with a sore pair of eyes. I spent most of the day in bed with my eyes shut, willing the infection and inflammation to go away. [Which has begun to happen, thank God.]

Anyway, there I was with my eyes wide shut and nowhere to go and nothing I could usefully do; I had the opportunity to do something I rarely get time for, but which I enjoy greatly. I just let my mind wander.

It wasn’t long before I settled on a subject close to my heart, the whole issue of “content” and its associated awfulnesses, “audiences” and “digital rights”. That was probably triggered by a number of serendipitous events:

Firstly, I received my limited edition book and CD-R of Dark Night of the Soul (or DNOTS, as it gets called), the latest work by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse.


My copy came all shrinkwrapped, with a sticker on top. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw what the sticker said:


I heard about it. I paid for it. Yes, I paid a premium price for the book and the blank CD, the same way I paid for Arctic Monkeys (who started experimenting with the marketing process) or Radiohead (who tried to change how prices are discovered) or Prince (who really understood the Because Effect; he knew that digital copies of his music were essentially infinite, and that he personally represented the most valuable scarcity). [I’ve always felt that the only way I’m going to learn about how value is forming and morphing is by taking part in the process]. It didn’t take a degree in rocket science to figure out that digital downloads of DNOTS were going to be abundant, and that the physical book was likely to be scarce.

As Doc Searls taught me many years ago, Because Effects are all about abundances and scarcities; you make money with scarcity. You make money because of abundance. I’ve written about this repeatedly over the years; if you’re interested, take a look at this or this or this. And while you’re at it, you should probably re-read Kevin Kelly’s Better Than Free, which I refer to here.


Secondly, while in ruminative mood yesterday, I read the Guardian article referred to above. Headlined Collapse in illegal sharing and boom in streaming brings music to executives’ ears, the article is well worth reading. [Don’t worry about the gratuitous use of the word “illegal” before the word “download”, that’s just a generation thing. Like saying “social” before “media”.]. The key takeaway from the article is that teenagers are beginning to move away from downloads and towards streaming.

Thirdly, no story is complete nowadays without a Twitter angle. As I said earlier, I spent much of the day with my eyes closed thinking about things. It takes a lot of effort to do very little, so I was hungry by the late afternoon. Waiting for an early dinner, I checked Twitter out and came across Tim O’Reilly’s RT of an excellent post by Andrew Savikas:


This is a very important post. Andrew Savikas, you have made my day.

People don’t buy LPs or tapes or CDs or even downloads in order to own anything. What they want to do is to listen to music. The business of the musician is to make that music, in ways that only musicians can.

Some people seem to have forgotten that.

As Andrew says:

Whether they realize it or not, media companies are in the service business, not the content business. Look at iTunes: if people paid for content, then it would follow that better content would cost more money. But every song costs the same. Why would people pay the same price for goods of (often vastly) different quality? Because they’re not paying for the goods they’re paying Apple for the service of providing a selection of convenient options easy to pay for and easy to download.

Many people, from Rishab Aiyer Ghosh through to Larry Lessig and Terry Fisher, keep drumming this point home in their different ways. This is not about content. It’s about culture. The food and cooking pot analogies are very important. Again, Andrew Savikas makes that point very well in his post.

Read Andrew Savikas’ post. Then go and read Kevin Kelly’s Better than Free. Then come back and read Andrew Savikas’ post again. All this is a simple variant of Peter Drucker’s “People make shoes, not money”.

We should concentrate on giving customers what they want to pay for, rather than trying to force them to pay for what they don’t want to pay for. Artificial scarcities lead to artificial abundances.

An aside: For some time now, I’ve been researching and writing a book on information as seen from the perspective of food, unsurprisingly called Feed Me. Watch this space.

There’s a child in me somewhere, a child I encourage the existence of. And that child began giggling when the thought occurred to me:

What if the troglodytes finally began to realise that customers were scarce and digital music was abundant? What if they finally began to realise that downloads were an excellent way to advertise scarce things like concerts and physical memorabilia, as Prince figured out?

And what if the customers have given up and moved on, from the download to the stream?

It was never about owning content. It was always about listening to music.

It was never about product. It was always about service.

The customer is the scarcity. We would do well to remember that. And to keep remembering that.

14 thoughts on “The Death of the Download?”

  1. @laurence thanks for the feedback, glad to have been of help. I agree with you, the principle goes beyond music to everything digital.

  2. Excellent post – can I copy paste it into the Park Paradigm? Only because I’m a bit monotonic I’d transpose “investment research” into “music” elements of your post… ;) btw when are you going to implement Disqus on Confused?

  3. @sean go ahead, of course you can. The whole Feed Me book looks at *all* digital information this way, not just music. That’s why I still say “a blog about information” while writing about music, food, cricket, whatever.

  4. Some people do buy LPs, tapes and/or CDs to own something: a physical connection with the artist(s); a scarce artefact that serves as a visible demonstration of their devotion; a recording that has not been quantised and stored as a finite string of monotonously predictable 1s and 0s, but that instead lives an organic existence amidst pops and crackles and wow and flutter, and will one day subsume to them; a thing they can hold and hold dear; an objet d’art limited in number.

    Admittedly this does not apply to most people. However, I’m seeing a growth in popularity of scarcities associated with music, and this is almost certainly a reaction to digital downloads. For example, people who don’t even own a record player buying copies of their favourite band’s music on vinyl, and new bands being increasingly keen to have something released on vinyl, even if it is only a run of 500x 7″ singles. The latter I suspect being in part a reaction to the realisation that CD sales will be poor and coupled with a desire to have some physical legacy. And of course that the more digital we become the more cool the old formats become. Heck, even the compact cassette is enjoying a new wave of popularity (amongst those who are too young to have experienced the despair which results from the purchase using a week’s pocket money tangling itself round the mechanism of a Walkman).

  5. @andrew couldn’t agree more. I was trying to make a subtle point, and I guess I failed. The *free* download was a very cheap way of the industry keeping in touch with its customers, the real scarcity. By constantly harping on about the alleged illegality of the download, and by making it artificially scarce, people will have been put off downloading. End of cheap way of keeping in touch.

  6. @andrewsavikas whenever someone mentions cost-driven pricing to me, I have three letters to say back to them. SMS.

  7. @andrew – I think the physical artefacts now come as part of the “merchandise” element – vinyl LP as souvenir that will also allow you to listen to the music … similar to the scarce physical concert, or the t-shirt. If you were given the choice, though – would you take the abundant digital music or the scarce physical reminder? I know which I’d prefer :)

  8. Absolutely nailed it JP! (should shut yer eyes more often ;-)

    I wish I had said “digital copies of his music were essentially infinite, and that he personally represented the most valuable scarcity” of the Prince view. As that Monty Python skit suggests:

    “You will, Fang (Oscar), you will”

    Thanks for the loan of your eloquence.
    Fang – Mike Seyfang

  9. I thing habits about how people enjoy music is changing. Now music is one service more. Music and Entertainment Business needs to reinventing how bands could obtain benefits by other ways. Digital world is a reality and we need to take this opportunity to make things different. The world is changing, we need to change our way of thinking….
    Congratulations….good post….

  10. Agreed, shut your eyes often!

    Just stumbled it for you and in summarizing it, this question –

    If we basically will pay (smallish amounts) for experience, where will the whole economy go.

    Specifically, how do we store value for a rainy day or for retirement?

Let me know what you think

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