What if…you woke up one day and everything you ever paid for—the pack of gum, the comic book, the prom dress, the hamburger, the vacation, the car, the house—was now available for free? All you had to do was call it up on a screen, tap on its icon and voila—yours.
Sort of like in a dream.
It reminds me of that scene in Defending Your Life, where Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks are in heaven and realize that they can eat as much as they want and never gain weight. All that pleasure for no cost. Too good to be true, right?
What could be better than free? Free is intoxicating. Free is fun. Free is…free.
But what happens to the hard working people who manufacture the goods and services being received for free? What happens when their livelihood has been hijacked by a service that found a way to make tons of money distributing their product without fairly compensating them?
This is how it is today for the songwriter. Twas a time that after years of practice, saving up for studio time, paying for programmers and singers, a songsmith was able to land a hit (or a non-hit for that matter), on a physical unit called an album. And when it was purchased, he or she earned a respectable royalty. When the medium segued from vinyl to cassette and later to CD, one could argue over the questionable quality of a digital recording, but the songwriter still got paid.
When downloads came to be and we could no longer hold a song in our hands, there were varying opinions about how single-track access affected the listening experience, but there was still a transactional purchase and again the songwriter got paid. (Unless of course it was accessed through Napster or some other illegal file sharing service.)
But now, it appears that Apple will be dropping music downloads from the iTunes store menu. Soon, your favorite songs will be accessed and delivered solely by streaming, which will even replace your beloved KROQ or the equivalent. I’ve written before about how creators are disfranchised by this business model and it’s not my intent to get into those wicked workings right now. (You can Read about it here.)
What has me ruminating is this idea of tapping ones finger on a screen and receiving our heart’s desire on demand. And how you would feel if that newly costless commodity was a good or service that sustained your livelihood. Who could have imagined that technology would make it possible to deliver music via an invisible digital stream? And if it happened with songs, next year it could be something else that arrives by way of an equally unimaginable means.
For friends and family (and strangers) who choose to subscribe to Spotify or Apple, I thank you. I do. What more can I ask you to do? No, a $9.99 monthly subscription is not going to put a songwriter’s bank account back on the map, or change antiquated laws, but the important thing is, in paying for music, you are preserving and cultivating the idea that music has value.
In the meantime, what happens to our economy if too much stuff becomes free? That would take the current political debate about jobs to a whole new level. (I wish there were more of a political conversation about intellectual property, and the job loss that will ensue if copyright laws aren’t protected. What say you Hillary? Donald?)
I keep trying to think this through. To make sense of it all. I know innovation is necessary. Inevitably, it's accompanied by disruption. I feel for the taxi cab driver who is being replaced by a DIY ride sharing upstart. But there’s a difference between this and the songwriter's dilemma: as unfortunate as that disruption is, the taxi driver is not performing the act for which you are paying the Uber driver. The Uber driver is doing the driving. Whereas with song delivery, the ones who are actually creating the content that allow the streaming services to exist in the first place are the ones being marginalized on the food chain. There is indeed millions upon millions of dollars being generated from subscriptions and advertising but the revenue is not finding it’s way to the us.
I said this all this before. I’ll keep saying it.
The perception of free is a dangerous drug and the longer we believe it’s okay to use it the harder it will be to get sober.
I sound like a broken record.
Sadly, there is no pun intended.