In light of the Grokster decision, a few thoughts about MP3 filesharing:
1. The decision seems unlikely to prevent it. As I understand it, it makes a company liable for promoting a service on the basis of its facilitating unlawful activities, but it does not make peer-to-peer technology itself unlawful. It does nothing to end offshore-based peer-to-peer services. And it has no effect on the newsgroups, where filesharing first began. Those who want to scoop up free MP3s will likely be able to continue to do so until they become undesirable or outtmoded. Therein lies the hope for copyright owners — a new technology that offers improved features while at the same time building in anti-copying provisions. But it’s hard to imagine what feature is an improvement on “free”.
2. Some argue that free digitial music means that the music industry needs to sell a better-designed physical object, something more akin to the 33 1/3 album, which more and more takes on the quality of a collector’s item for its own physical sake rather than the music contained within its grooves. LPs are fun to have for their large-scale art, for the relative rarity of it. Whereas a digitally encoded song is literallly ubiquitous; in Benjamin’s terms it has no aura whatsoever. It’s infinitely copiable; therefore possession of it has no particular value. Music — the sound of it, etc. — may be irrevocably free, and maybe that’s not a problem. What isn’t free is the image of the performer, and the profit for the industry lies in exploiting that image, via live performances and more ingenious packaging. This is one of the ways free music leads to shallower music; what will be made and promoted will be more reliant on how big of a star the singer is, its relation to marketable doo-dads bearing the performer’s image. Less promotion money will go to music that’s just good music (as opposed to being flashy or trendy or sexy or whatever) and people who aren’t devoting all of their time to sorting through what’s available (for free) will never find it.
3. Listeners expend no special effort to master complicated music when its free. When another album can be had immediately for nothing, there’s no incentive to give that compicated record another spin. For better or worse, the money investment in albums led to a time investment in giving it a shot, in attempting to come to terms with it. But in line with the fetish of convenience, one must consume as much music as is available as quickly as possible, with no heed to the impediments like complexity or sophistication that impede consumption. Goodbye Captain Beefheart, hello Anniemal. Bands making complex music will have a harder time securing an audience when their music is distributed for free, but perhaps this will be compensated for by the greater emphasis on performance. They will have to build their fan base through performance, which is the only place they’ll be able to make money anyway. But the effect on the totality of the pop-music industry is that music on the whole will become less sophisticated, seeking to have a more instantaneous effect.
4. The more effort it takes to procure something, the more effort one will put in to appreciating it. Are there exceptions to this? When music is free the getting itself because the acitivity more than the listening to it, which is time-consuming.
5. Technology will perhaps force us to see recorded music the way we see the newspapers given away on the subways. The music industry could move to distributing its own music free but with ads embedded in the files.