Digital Music: A Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

Go ahead, ask it, "What is the Future of Music?"

Last week the Internets were all abuzz with blog-posts and comments about digital music and the moral imperative to “buy” music.

The dialog began with a blog post by a Emily White, an NPR intern who marveled at the fact that she has over 11,000 songs on her iPod despite having purchased in her life only 15 CDs.

Ms. White’s post generated a long, rambling and at times incoherent harangue in the form of an open letter from one David Lowery (formerly of the bands Camper Von Beethoven and Cracker), who accused Ms. White of being morally and ethically challenged since she had not actually “paid” for most of the music in her collection. Between the two of them, the two posts generated thousands of comments, responses, and further blog posts through the course of the ensuing week.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the original messages or flood of verbiage that ensued – a Google search for “emily white david lowery” will generate 127,000 returns – but I do want to pass on two items that, between them, draw some interesting distinctions between how difficult digital technology has made the environment for some musicians, and how it has enabled others.

First the grim news, from music industry blogger/curmudgeon Paul Resnikoff (whose perpetual cynicism compelled one friend of mine to suggest that the “Resni-” part of his last name is actually a euphemism for “jerk” — do the verbal calisthenics yourself). At his well trafficked blog Digital Music News, Resnikoff tells us that “Our Digital Innocence Just Died. And David Lowery Killed It…” — a post that goes beyond Lowery’s ‘moral and ethical’ challenges and sees doom in every nook and cranny:

(6) Sadly, most artists are worse off in the digital era than they were in the physical era.

Actually, we have David Lowery himself to thank for this realization. Because the implosion of the recording has impacted nearly every other aspect of music monetization (though certainly not music creativity itself.) And its replacement is generally a fraction of what a ‘lucky’ artist could expect in an earlier era.

But what I really feel compelled to pass along is a post by Mike Masnick at Techdirt, who takes both Lowery and Resnikoff to task with a post that asserts that A Business Model Failure Is Not A Moral Issue.

Masnick outdoes himself with a passage that has countless links to an abundance of good ideas about how rich and plentiful the digital landscape is if you can stop thinking in the ‘buy my products” mentality of the Lowerys and Resnikoffs of the world. Just click on a few of the “over and over” links in this paragraph:

This is about failed business models, not morals. If you have a bad business model, you fail. End of story. If you have good content, an ability to connect with fans, and a good business model, you’ll absolutely succeed today. We see it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. And those were just the stories I could remember off the top of my head. There are tons more.

…and you will find enough interesting ideas to sustain a dozen careers.

Yes, we are definitely in a transitional period, and, I contend, very early in that period, despite the efforts of countless observers to tell us what the future is going to be. Technology may be moving at “Internet speed,” but the fact is people still move at “people speed.”

Perhaps the gist of the argument was best summed up by the ineffable Bob Lefsetz. I have a lot of issues with Lefsetz (who doesn’t?), but with this particular observation, he’s entirely prescient:

We’re in the midst of a wrenching transition. Anybody who says they know where it’s gonna end up is just plain wrong. But one thing’s for sure, we’re not gonna be where we started.

The future isn’t here yet, and anybody who tells you otherwise is looking at at one of those “Magic 8-Balls,” not a crystal ball.