The Generation Gap in Music Ownership

This is a guest post kindly written for us by Alan Cairns, if you like what he’s written we highly recommend you follow him on Twitter @n01d34 for more wisdom.

As a keen fan of music, I began building my record collection over fifteen years ago; blowing my pocket money on 7”s, 12”s, CDs, tapes and the fanzines which brought the music to my attention. I built a great collection of independent music which impressed my friends, who inevitably listened to mainstream artists promoted on MTV. I was building a catalogue of music that reflected my taste and even my ethics and politics. This was back in the days when you went round somebody’s house and scanned their CD collection for anything embarrassing.

As the internet penetrated my world I continued to collect, file and store a wide variety of music. I still filed it immaculately, filling in missing tracks, release dates, album information or even cover images. Even though my music collection now consisted of just a few DVDs full of mp3s, I still filed and stored it in a way that gave the music a lot of respect and placed a lot of value on it. My tastes were diversifying, but increasingly I found that my friends were less and less interested in what I was listening to.

My CDs, LPs and 7”s will always have a special value, but is my massive external hard drive of mp3s really worth anything? A couple of years ago I lost a whole batch of music, which I managed to replace almost instantly. If a collection can be replaced so quickly and easily, at very reasonable cost, is it time to abandon the idea of music ownership?

Is there any value in digital music ownership? Do you really own the mp3s in iTunes? A technological shift could make those mp3s unplayable or otherwise worthless overnight.

Is owning an mp3 anything like owning a cd, dvd or box set? While Apple or Amazon might think that an mp3 is worth 99p, most listeners will tell you that an mp3 is worth virtually nothing. Consumers don’t own these mp3s in the same way that they own LPs or CDs of the past. Digital music is nothing – it’s a digital file that sits on a hard drive, is easily lost, and can be got again at virtually no cost. Mp3s are hardly anything at all, it’s more like a catalogue entry or footnote.

We live in an era when music ownership is irrelevant. The increased penetration of wifi/mobile devices means that any song (or film, tv show, image or article for that matter) can be pulled up almost instantly on a wealth of websites and free services including YouTube, Spotify etc. When the history of music is just click away, what’s the point in hoarding physical copies of albums? Listeners are more likely to pull up a YouTube video than pull a recorded piece of music out of their collection.

Emily White, in her article for NPR, admitted to never having owning any music, despite calling herself a music-lover. Her post was met with a lot of finger-wagging; people telling her that she should be paying the artists for the music she loves, who could disagree, but the fact that Emily came right out and said it, didn’t apologise for listening to pirated/shared music and looked to the industry and technology to provide a convenient solution that would also reimburse artists, made me realise that she’s part of the next generation. My generation saw the record industry fall apart, physical music sales nosedive and watched good artists fail as a result of digital downloads. Today’s young people aren’t adapting to the new landscape – this is what they’ve been born into. Today’s musicians make their money through lucrative sponsorship deals and loosely-related merchandise, not the sale of music as a product.

As ownership becomes easier and easier to achieve through the proliferation of mp3s, the lack of scarcity sees its value plummet. Owning music is easy to do, and won’t necessarily cost you a penny, or even much of your time. Emily is happy for her music to exist solely in a cloud, admitting that it wouldn’t take long for her to build her record collection from scratch. It’s not ownership of the music that matters, but knowledge and awareness.

Increasingly it’s thought generation Y are much less interested in buying things and owning products, and are more interested in how products can connect them to people and things, what they can do with the product, and what it tells the world about them.

We see media consumption as part of their socialisation. Knowledge of bands, producers, groups and releases is cultural collateral in a social situation, but these days it really doesn’t make any difference whether you own their releases or just heard them on the radio or YouTube.

The new generation is less concerned with ownership of things, and more concerned with how things can connect them to the world around them. While once you could have an LP collection and have your taste judged by its size and diversity alone, to connect with an individual about music today requires knowledge and understanding, and I for one, think that’s a good thing.

Increasingly selling music isn’t about the music. It’s about the t-shirts, the coasters, the merchandise, the look. Musicians need to exploit this. The music is everywhere, freely available, today it’s about how the music is digested and what you can do to monetise your reputation.