In Gerd Leonhard’s book “Music 2.0 – Essays by Gerd Leonhard” he mentions the concept of “Music Like Water” and writes: “Music is no longer a product but a service….for the future, think of a ‘record label’ as a ‘music utility company’.”
I have seen this gradual shift over the years and his words seem to have become prophetically true. We are so incredibly immersed in music now. It has become normal to dial up any song at the drop of a hat and to have access to more music that a single person put even physically listen to in a single lifetime.
With the seemingly infinite access to music has also appeared a reduced interest or need in user ownership. Gerd Leonhard also says “Access to Music Will Replace Ownership.” Also a trend that has become true.
I am old enough to remember cassette tapes and how naughty we were to record to tape directly from the radio. But we had our physical collection and were proud that we “owned” the music. Somehow making our custom mixtape brought us into the creative sphere of the songwriter or composer. We could play the music which was really a customized performance brought about by our uncanny ability to find the perfect mix of songs and segue them together as never before. Our Radio Shack tape recorders transformed us into analog rocket scientists.
And those tapes would be carefully arranged in cardboard shoe boxes according to whatever clever system we invented, certainly more hip than the Dewey Decimal System. It was ours. We owned it. We could touch it. And at some point we had so many cassettes that we had to invest in a high end professional organizer from K-mart. It was plastic with a faux wood grain and as we stacked them and filled them with our growing collection of cassettes we would stand back and admire them. And it was cool.
We had a few records but that was mainly for the older generation of stoners who needed something to look at when they had the munchies.
Then the CD’s came out but we didn’t buy them because there was no way that was going to last. Fifteen dollars and no album jacket? You think we’re THAT stupid? Cassettes were only a few bucks.
CD’s took hold and finally we started building our collections. Now we could laugh about how stupid those cassette tapes were. Cassettes wear out but CD’s last forever. (I found out later that the shelf life of a CD was 50 years, at least that’s what I was told, and I was heartbroken).
Ripping a bootleg copy of a CD was not easy because no one had a CD burner. A CD burner was like fifteen hundred dollars. I remember when I bought a CD burner in the early 90’s and for a couple years I was like some sort of rock star. I could do anything.
Then Napster came and what was that about? Now the generation gap was in full swing. Napster was some sort of mystery that was talked about in hushed tones. Everything changed at that point and the new generation had spoken up about how they wanted to consume music.
Then the iPod came out and it was so awesome to create a music library again. So now we downloaded free bootlegs and figured out how to get our massive library all set up. Finally all the generations were together in agreement: We’ll pay for some of the music so it’s ok to get some on the side for free. The iPod had a short stay and then streaming took off.
With streaming we could listen to as much music as we wanted on demand and it’s so cheap it might as well be free. It’s like the bootleg days but we have an almost unlimited library that we can call on at any time. And it’s legal.
So now we come full circle to Gerd Leonhard prediction that “music is like water” and “access to music will replace ownership.” We don’t need to own it anymore. We only want access. Leonhard even says that “the physical possession of [music] will in face be more of a handicap, or a pastime for collectors.”
Musicians have ranted and complained about how unfair streaming is. If Napster users had paid for ten percent of what they downloaded I could have bought a house from the royalties. If the streaming companies would only pay more then art could survive.
I am a lifelong musician. I also understand that music users have spoken loud and clear how they want to consume music. And these music consumers are not “consumers” any more, they are, as Gerd Leonhard says, “the people formerly known as consumers.”
There use to be this wall between artist and consumer. Artists can fight it but consumers enjoy taking the artist music and engaging with it. Long gone are those Radio Shack tape decks and a simple mix tape. Now fans are making complete remixes as mashups. The mashup part hasn’t worked itself out to being legal yet, but more and more artists are releasing their music stems, essentially saying “We don’t own the music – You do – Take it and use it.”
As an artist these shifts have really affected my livelihood. But if I step back and look at the bigger picture of how prevalent music is now and how wide the access is, I can’t help but smile. It really is beautiful. Yes, it will affect how artists create and yes some of us will be hit hard during the transition. But I see other artifacts of this switch from this switch away from “owning” music to enjoying it.
I see artists being more thoughtful about what they spend their time creating. I see artists focusing more on projects that are important to them personally rather than turning a buck. I see artists focusing more on live performance and genuine exchanges with their audience.
Not all good and not all beautiful. We’re a far way from seeing how this will all play out but for the short term I’m fascinated of seeing the reality of “music as water” and for all listeners to become engaged in the music rather than simply being consumers.