05 October 2011 by Published in: rants 1 comment

A common meme around the anti-copyright tech scene (TechDirt, TorrentFreak) is that music companies need to compete with free and they are mostly shooting themselves in the foot by setting up silly barriers to music consumption.

Well, they’re right.  But here’s the deeper reality–they’re more right than even they realize.

When Spotify launched in the US, piracy numbers started to dwindle.  It’s simply easier than pirating.  Happy ending, right?  Well…

You see, because pirated music sources by definition have to be harder to use, they (have to) make it up in other areas.  In case you’re not familiar with modern elite trackers like what.cd and waffles.fm, let me enlighten you:

  • The most incredible selection anywhere.  Literally, anywhere.  Better reach than eBay and Amazon combined.  Vinyl.  Lossless.  Unpublished.  Unreleased.  They even have top secret INTERPOL software.  If it exists, it’s there.
  • Powerful automated “related artist” graphs that correlate what different artists the same users are downloading and provide incredible recommendations.  The secret to beating Netflix’s recommendations isn’t “build a better algorithm”–it’s collect better data.  They do.
  • Best music communities ever.  50+ page discussions about which of the 30+ pressings (not encodes, mind) of The Dark Side of the Moon is the best.  And then which $2,700 needle should be used to rip it.  Followed by a detailed question and answer about linear algebra.  Then a meme post.  This is viewed as entirely normal.
But Spotify is easier.  And so instead of what I used to do–research music a lot, filtered by ridiculously smart people, and listen to maybe one new album a week,  I’m now going through many new albums a day, most of which are terrible, because you’re not going to find any Freakeys or Transatlantic on Spotify.
Of course, I could just go back to pretending like Spotify doesn’t exist–but try telling me that when I need some thinking music when debugging an invalid pointer dereference in a multi-threaded novel algorithm.  Which is pretty much most of the time I’m deciding what music to play.
The narrative of the music and movie industries right now are of legal vs illegal, of the Empire vs the Rebellion.  But I think this is the wrong narrative.  We shouldn’t be talking about business models, copyright law, delivery methods.  We should be talking about creating and listening to great music.  And the labels, under any business model, and with any release window system, and no matter whether or not they sue p2p filesharers, are terrible about the musicianship side of the equation.  So we’re having the wrong conversation.
Easy is an awesome feature, but unfortunately it has a high hidden cost–it puts the labels back in control.  As I sit here and write this post, I am listening to mediocre alternative rock because it seemed like a good idea to “catch up” with some band some friend liked two years ago.  I was listening to a great band in iTunes, but I had to quit it for an XCode update, and Spotify was open, and the friction of switching back was too great.  While writing this post, I have heard three ads for Kelly Clarkson.  I actually click on a pop track once in awhile.  Meanwhile my long list of new legitimately great bands to explore gets dequeued at a rate of maybe one a month.  This is not me being a hipster–the quality of music I listen to has sharply declined since Spotify.
And it’s not just Spotify.  I proudly don’t own a TV, but somehow the cable networks have Hulued their way onto my work computers.  I can’t tell if TV has gotten better or if online journalism has gotten worse–but Hulu sometimes seems more legitimately thought-provoking than Reddit and RSS feeds.  Meanwhile my trusty copy of TAOCP sits dusty on the shelf.  I’ll read it when I have a week free.  That will be, hmm, just as soon as I’ve gone through the all those pop rock bands from the 90s that I remember.  So… 2016.
I remember having strong words for Paul Graham’s The Acceleration of Addictiveness.  And I still think he is wrong on the specifics–that Facebooks and Farmvilles will be created to enslave the masses, that the Internet, in some arbitrary and nonspecific way, is becoming addictive in an accelerating fashion.  The real threat is a slow, subtle, incremental iteration on the bad things we already have.  For the five years before Hulu, I succesfully avoided television ads.  For the decade before Spotify, I successfully avoided radio ads.  The threat is evolving, and my defenses are failing to evolve with it.
Let me take this opportunity to throw out a completely unsolicited shout-out to RescueTime, which has definitely had the highest rate of return of anything I’ve spent money on ever, period, and I’ve been a customer for several years.  While there are a lot of things that aren’t perfect about it, (and I may end up working on some tools to augment it, depending on how seriously they take my feature requests), this is the kind of tool we need in the toolbox to fight the new threats.  The only bad thing about RescueTime is that it’s taught me to play the game–now I watch a lot of videos on my iPad instead of my Mac because they aren’t tracked.
But it’s more than just distraction.  The Internet was supposed to be the great equalizer, the great democratizer–that turned content consumers into content producers.  It seems we’re giving up that fight.  And even where it looks like content production is starting to get awesome–i.e. Facebook, Tumblr, WordPress–it turns out that we do a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure that the “user content” we see is the curated version that reinforces the existing narrative and tells us what we want to hear instead of challenging us to think differently and expose ourselves to different points of view.
I suppose I should offer a solution to this.  And probably, if I think about it long enough, I could think of one.  Nah.  That’s a lot of work.  Instead I’m going to watch something on Hulu.  Have a good night.

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