It might not be too much of a stretch of the truth to say that my generation may be the last where a common, perhaps even universal, experience shared by many, in the west at least, is a persons very first purchase of a physical media product such as an album, book or film.
That being true, the emphasis on the word physical in the previous sentence is key as instead of the market for such goods simply evaporating as many media conglomerates would have us believe it has simply involved into a digital marketplace. Regular readers of this blog will already have seen in a previous post my positive feelings about the potential of new technologies to democratise existing institutions and I believe that the migration of media from a physical format to a more digitised existence again holds tremendous potential. Tremendous potential that is, if it can only be harnessed for positive ends rather than being left to simply replicate the pre-existing physical market in a digital environment. In this post I will discuss briefly the reasons I feel the traditional market model is less desirable and then offer a blue sky analysis of why a shift to the digital would be preferable for all creative industries. In doing this however I will inevitably confront my somewhat wishful beliefs with the realities that exist in one of the most thriving digital exchange formats, peer to peer file-sharing websites which on paper hold so much promise yet in reality are little more than the bastard children of old media and new technology.
When I reflect on the traditional market model of media sales, specifically the sale of media products in a dedicated shopping environment the thought does cause me to reminisce with a great deal of fondness that perhaps does mask some of the inherent flaws of such a model. I remember quite vividly the sense of youthful glee that would envelop me on a a Friday afternoon as I left school for home stopping briefly at the video rental shop to pick up something to watch over the weekend and if I didn’t stop here then it would be the local library later on that same evening. As I progressed in age and starting receiving money instead of noisy toys at Christmas and birthdays (I’m sure much to my parent’s delight) my media consumption shifted somewhat away from renting and borrowing and towards purchasing products for my own collection. It was probably at this juncture that I first became aware of one of the central drawbacks in the traditional model of media consumption, Price.
Now I know naysayers will offer arguments, such as “but the artist/author/director should be compensated for their hard work which you so enjoyed” or that “but buying CDs/ DVDs/ books is an investment”, to defend the industry but I stand by my initial opinion that the pricing of traditional media is prohibitive. Yes the creator of any work deserves to be rewarded for their work but it is a little presumptuous to assume that the sales of physical copies of their work from retail outlets is a successful artists sole source of money when you consider the numerous other streams of revenue that are potentially available to them. A further problem with the above argument is that it doesn’t really make a mention of the industry which also takes a cut if not in some cases the lions share of my money when I hand it over to the cashiers in my local record shop. I’m fully in support of artists receiving their cut of the loot but it is a lot more difficult to accept paying the industry itself for my media purchases.
Similarly there is an element of logic in the argument that purchasing media for ones own private consumption is an investment which therefore justifies the price but I fear those offering this as a counter argument are over playing the strength of their hand. Whether the supposed investment in media is a matter of investing in a persons education or investing in cultural capital or investing in a strictly financial sense it still does not justify the drastically inflated costs that traditional media outlets historically charged for their goods. Making an investment of any sort justifies a price yes, this is something I believe none of us can deny, just not the prices that were and still are in many cases charged by the big players in the media industry. Taking the investment idea and running with it little longer, one way in which I might have maintained some of the value of my investment in the media against the massive decreases in pricing across the board for their products on the whole is by diversifying my portfolio which leads me on to my other main qualm with the industry. When I was younger it is true that like many young people I wanted to fit it in with other idiots just like me and as one could expect my media purchases at the time are a clear example of this behaviour in action. The number of CD’s I bought in this period of my childhood that demonstrate my crushing desire to be recognised as cool is quite staggering and is probably replicated exactly give or take one odd choice in the CD collections of many other people who happen to be the same age as me. As I started to become a little more comfortable with my own identity I felt more comfortable in moving away from buying only the most popular bands CDs and last summers biggest blockbusters on video or DVD and consequently I started to look around for things a little less mainstream and it is this juncture in my life that the sheer lack of choice available in the large majority of shops dawned on me.
Again there are justifications for this lack of choice that do explain in principle why the choice was so poor in so many of the shops I frequented but they hardly mollify the disappointed and disillusioned who dreamed of buying Tom Waits’ entire back catalogue or a film that happened to be Uzbek in origin rather than from the studios of Hollywood. A lack of physical space and a record of what sells the most effectively combined to shut out those who visited mainstream outlets for media in the hope and unlike the pricing issue I mention above there isn’t a great deal of room for manoeuvre on this issue. Physical space, even in the best of shops will always be limited and it is extremely hard to get hold of some more obscure products from wholesalers let lone justify filling the limited space with them rather than with products that proven best sellers. And so based on this we can arguably see that a lack of choice or to temper this slightly, limited choice is an inherent flaw of the traditional media outlets format. However, despair not as there is an alternative in the form of the internet to these traditional outlets that we would do well to utilise.
In offering the internet as an alternative medium for the exchange of media products I do not refer to the simple digitisation of shops that sell physical media products as well, I refer specifically to mediums of exchange that are arguably only possibly as a result of the internet, primarily peer-to-peer exchange networks. I won’t pretend to understand in any great detail how bit torrent protocols work and so will simply redirect anyone interested to this website for a significantly better summary than I could ever offer. While my knowledge of how the technology itself works is rather lacking my hopes for what may be achieved by the use of this particular technology are almost exponential in nature.
I’ll start off my analysis of why peer-to-peer services are in my opinion preferable with the most unsubtle approach possible, a direct appeal to the wallets of the common man and woman. By utilising such technologies, someone could save endless amounts of money on the purchases of media products that they might have made in physical old fashioned retailers. Naysayers will no doubt say “but then the artists would receive nothing in return for their hard work” when actually research seems to show that there is a positive correlation between people downloading content for free using peer-to-peer sites and then based on their enjoyment of that very same content they then go out and buy physical copies. So what we have in this technology is not quite the free for all that the media industry would like us to believe exists and also not quite a library or rental service which would drive further interest in ones products but a large grey area with the potential to go either way. I suppose the overall thrust of my argument is that if the industry decides to engage with the real world rather than trying to subpoena threats to its monopoly into non-existence that it could easily utilise the existing framework of peer-to-peer sites to create new streams of revenue. I would on reflection happily accept a reasonably priced service that allowed me unlimited downloads of media content that I could access for a limited time operating on the assumption that in the case of the content I downloaded and accessed for a week which I really enjoyed I would most likely buy it fully at a later date. Perhaps the key here is that the industry as a whole tends to view peer-to-peer services like they view their store fronts as the culmination of the purchasing process, when what is needed is for them to view peer-to-peer technologies as the cheapest marketing method possible. Forget spending hundreds of thousands of pounds filling my browser with adverts I ignore, or putting up adverts at bus-shelters which only ever get vandalised – let the content speak for itself in a voice louder than you ever could. In saying all of this I accept that some aspects of the industry would suffer as a result of the utilisation of such methods but all that would in essence be needed is for those parts of the industry to, in the true spirit of capitalism, adapt to changes in the market to survive or falter out – no great loss if my opinion on the matter were to be asked.
As well as the way in which they could revolutionise the pricing of media, peer-to-peer technologies could thoroughly improve on the other inherent failing of the current method of selling media, lack of choice. As I said above I completely understand that due to limitations most physical shopping environments where media happens to be sold will never be able to stock a full selection of products that represents any communities diverse interests when it comes to films, music or books. So surely on the matter of choice the internet is the solution that has always been sought with a seemingly endless amount of storage potential while being comparatively inexpensive to maintain compared to any physical shop larger than a storage closet. By ending the lack of choice that confines the inventories of physical shops, peer-to-peer technologies would in principle also do away with one of the cultural/philosophical side effects of the current way in which media is purchased. The side effect I allude to is that the culture on offer in shops is more often than not a rather ethnically homogeneous culture which stifles those who wish to truly broaden their horizons. In the age of the internet through the use of peer-to-peer technologies is should be as easy to listen to the funk of Fela Kuti of Nigeria as it is to listen to
Britney Spears VERY MASCULINE MUSIC.
All of the above being true this is not to deny that as they stand, peer-to-peer websites are an ugly beast (much like two gentlemen pictured somewhere in this article – leaving that call very much up to the readers own prejudices). Yes they do drive business for physical retail outlets and yes they aren’t anywhere near as detrimental to sales as the industry would have us believe but they have their flaws, by the bucket load. First off, they seem to replicate exactly the old methods of media distribution’s inclination towards only making massively popular items readily available therefore destroying the inherent benefit in principle that the internet should be able to stock anything a man could desire. Further compounding the issue is the way in which peer-to-peer technologies work in that items that are popular will download far faster as more people will be available to seed the files, meaning that even if well meaning people upload the rare files you are looking for, it could take you literally all of fucking eternity to download them if the interest in those files, alongside your own interest, is not very high.
And then suppose you do find what your looking for after many hours of trawling through the internet, then your problems really have only just begun. Seriously, take a look at the top 100 lists on most peer-to-peer websites, specifically ebooks and “movies”, and prepare to see the ugly face of the abyss staring back. How could so many people need advice in the bedroom, it might not be satisfying for you but you are mostly doing it right for heavens sake – the human race has increased by a billion just in my very short lifetime. And if its not sexual help you seek it seems to be pathetic self help books aimed at teaching you to be confident or how to make friends. Really, if you find what your looking for on peer-to-peer websites there is a high chance your some sort of deviant whose abusing this incredible technology that is the internet, capable of holding in effect all recorded knowledge, to gets your rocks off.
I’d like to one day look back on the way I just summarised the internet and its users and think I was wrong but I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Much the same as I highly doubt the record labels will listen to my logic that they should surrender their monopolies but the least a man can do is try.