Shared Files

The New Record Collection

How to Cite

Kibby, M. (2003). Shared Files: The New Record Collection. M/C Journal, 6(2).
Vol. 6 No. 2 (2003): Share
Published 2003-04-01

The carefully constructed record collection with detailed liner notes and displayable album cover art is little more than a quaint anachronism for the twenty-year-olds of 2003. For them, a music collection is more likely to be a fat, glovebox sized folder of anonymous CD ROMs. Affective investments in particular bands, releases, tracks, have been replaced by a desire for a sort of musical 'affluence' where the size and currency of the collection is valued, rather than the constituent components of the collection.

The explanation for this transition from the collection of fetishised albums to the folder of disposable files lies in the increasing dissatisfaction with the CD album as a product, and the development of technology that enabled file sharing to become an effective music distribution method.

A decade before music file-sharing became widespread, Frith (73) commented on “the changing place of music in leisure generally ... music is being used differently and in different, more flexible forms.” Frith was discussing home-taping. He recognised, as the record companies did not, that the explosion of home-taping was not simply a legal matter, a breach-of-copyright issue, but a production and marketing issue. The youth market, in particular, was using music in new and different ways, ways that demanded more flexibility in format and increased personalisation of music compilations. During the 90s music sales continued to decline, particularly in the youth segment. Fox & Wrenn report that “between 1991 and 2000, the overall market share of young consumers has declined substantially” dropping from eighteen per cent to thirteen per cent for fifteen to nineteen year olds, and with similar figures for the twenty to twenty-four year olds. (112). Global music sales fell from $41.5 billion in 1995 to $38.5 billion in 1999. While there is a good deal of market research that attempts to prove that file sharing was responsible for the declining CD sales, much of the analysis is suspect and there are indications that assuming a cause and effect relationship is inaccurate. The growth period for music file sharing was 2000 to 2001, and during this period CD sales actually rose five per cent. In 2002 one of the most downloaded artists was Eminem, with millions downloading The Eminem Show before its release, yet the CD went on to set sales records.

Very little market research addresses consumer satisfaction with CDs as a music product. However, focus groups conducted with groups of first year university students suggest that young consumers in particular think that CDs are too expensive and that record companies are ripping them off, they don't like being forced to buy tracks that they do not want, in order to own the tracks that they like, many prefer a mix of artists rather than a whole CD of the same performer, some do not want the case and cover and resent having to pay for them, some want their music in chunks longer than the fifty minutes or so of the average CD, many feel that they get insufficient information about the artist and the track before they have to make the decision to buy. Overall the feeling was: "this is not a product I want, and it costs more than I think I should have to pay."

Without a high level of consumer dissatisfaction with the music products on offer, peer-to-peer file sharing programs would not have been able to create the waves that they have in the music industry. Music file sharing is a social phenomenon, as well a technological revolution. Both the social function of music and the cooperative history of the Internet set the stage for music file sharing. Music consumption is grounded in a communal philosophy, and one of the pleasures of listening to music is that it connects the individual to a social group or subculture. The Internet’s first civilian uses were based in collective efforts, and content was made freely accessible to all users. Commercialisation came later. According to Segal, this development history has "bred an entitlement philosophy in Internet users" (97). From its beginning the Internet facilitated the sharing of files, text, graphics, software and music. However locating desired music files was only for the determined, and downloading them solely for the patient, until the development of compressed music formats like MP3 and specialised file sharing utilities such as Napster. Music consumers quickly discovered the benefits of music file sharing, and today's most popular services – KaZaA, Grokster, and Morpheus – have an estimated seventy million active users.

Peer- to-peer music offers a different music consumption experience. First, it is free, and it is free in huge quantities. Endless numbers of tracks and albums are available from golden oldies to yet to be released, obscure examples of minor genres to the latest pop hit, major artists to you-haven't-heard-of-us-yet. This is inevitably changing consumers' relationship to music, with many "downloading music in an obsessive manner, without identifying with it or experiencing a passionate attachment" (Kasaras). Contributing to this is the uneven quality of files available for downloading – many have been uploaded with more enthusiasm than care, and may be misnamed, wrongly attributed, or of poor sound quality. Peer-to-peer music also provides an experience of community, as users chat about live performances and music related products, and exchange information on lyrics and concert listings. Another aspect of p-2-p music that has had an impact on the way consumers experience music is the play-list editor, which allows music files to be categorised and ordered into lists for playback. Play-lists can be organised by artist, genre, date or theme into several hours of back-to-back music – providing, in essence, a personal radio station. The music collection becomes an evanescent experience, rather than a valued commodity.

The music industry's immediate reaction to changing consumer behaviour was to attempt to litigate the competition out of existence, or to buy them out. A belated response was to establish rival services. However MusicNet, PressPlay and the new commercial Napster have met with a lukewarm response from their target market. All have fairly limited lists of files available – no full albums, few recent releases – all are expensive for what they provide, and all have severe restrictions on how much can be downloaded, and how the downloaded files can be used. As a Time article commented “All three are so restrictive you would think you were downloading homeland‑security documents, not 'N Sync” (Taylor 74).

The dissatisfaction with the commercial music file subscription services, and the decentralised nature of the new p-2-p networks has led the popular press to hail a democratic revolution in music distribution. However its optimism may be a little premature, as the current file-sharing networks are not without problems for the consumer. Industry providers will always have advantages over amateur file uploaders in the areas of standards, convenience and quality. Finding other than top‑forty tracks is still a time consuming activity, and downloading over a modem still takes time. When offered several choices of a track, only trial and error can determine which is the best choice. Making the wrong choice often means downloading an unplayable file. The current generation of file-sharing services may be more amorphous than those they replaced, but though they are distributed networks the file traffic is concentrated in a single direction. Only a small number of users actually contribute files, and of this group perhaps only 1% respond to requests for files. Because the music files are treated as a public good, most users feel entitled to download files without ever contributing files to the pool. When the majority ride free on the efforts of others the performance of the system is seriously degraded. Free riding also makes the system open to legal action. Though in theory the seventy million users are beyond law suits because of the anonymity of numbers, if only a few are uploading files then these few are vulnerable to service bans and litigation. As the number of users continues to grow the problem of free riding compounds, and if users don't contribute to the public good on which all depend, the system is in danger of collapse (Adar and Huberman).

Peer-to-peer file sharing is therefore unlikely to replace industry mediated music consumption in the long term. However that does not mean that the CD will be restored to top place in consumer affections. The album is pretty much a seventies concept, largely dictated by the demands of producing, stocking and selling vinyl records. Increasingly young consumers are rejecting the concept. Digital technology and Internet distribution have made possible new ways of experiencing music, and consumers are becoming accustomed to new norms of music consumption: cheap or free, flexibility of formats, immediacy, breadth of choice, connections with artists and other fans, and access to related commodities. Increasingly they are looking to music as a service, rather than a product. The sheer amount and diversity of music available through p-2-p networks, has created a music consumer with immense, but reconfigured appetites. The industry's current business model is dependent on controlling the distribution of a physical product to a mass market. To meet the needs of the 'new' music consumer it will have to abandon this model and adopt the one-on-one interactive model of the Internet – music: any kind, anytime, anywhere.

Author Biography

Marjorie Kibby