Some people really don’t like it when I talk about the tech behind mp3-sharing/discovery websites like Muxtape or the Hype Machine. I can’t say I’m incredibly surprised that Anthony from the HM feels this way. He’s built a successful and useful website which I assume makes him at least a little money, and naturally he’s going to feel a little put-upon by those who assert, as I do, that the present moral and legal norms (to say nothing of the laws) that help form his site’s unique niche are incoherent and probably untenable. I do sincerely appreciate Anthony’s willingness to engage with me via the thoughtful comments he’s left.
But I was bummed to see Rich, who I know personally (at least a little) and who I really like and respect, express disappointment over my posting this stuff. So let me try to answer the questions that both of these guys posed. Anthony asked why I write those sorts of posts; Rich asked, basically, if I thought I could do any better, and if not why I feel entitled to tear down other people’s work. I think I’ll try to answer the question of my motivation here, and then talk about the technical issues in a separate post.
There are four reasons that I can think of that motivate me to write these music service dissections.
First: although I like attention as much as the next guy, I mostly write here for my own benefit. I’m not just saying that; the numbers bear me out. Google Analytics says that yesterday I got about 140 visitors — and that was with a link from the website of a national publication (don’t worry; it wasn’t about this stuff).
There’s also the fact that, believe it or not, I did take to heart the criticism that came from my original Hype Machine post. Rich is right: the things I pointed out about Muxtape are totally obvious to anyone who knows web technologies. But I still didn’t discuss them in any detail. I didn’t talk about how to use Firebug or what a Flash player’s HTML looks like or how to URL-decode the parameters I discussed. I didn’t hand out any scripts or instructions. I tried to convey the information in an interesting way, but one that wouldn’t be directly useful except by people who could’ve easily figured it out on their own.
Did I hit that mark? Well, with a quantity of readers in the very low three figures, most of whom aren’t technical, I don’t think it matters very much. If I thought I was about to bring ruin upon Muxtape I’d pull the post. Believe me, I’m not: his immediate considerations are going to involve scaling his infrastructure and finding a source of revenue to pay his S3 bill that doesn’t attract lawsuits. I’d say he’s got a pretty good shot. But what I write won’t matter one way or another to that site’s future.
Third: the web’s importance to our lives increases every day. I think it’s worthwhile to talk about how these technologies work, both to share knowledge among those who might do something with it and to help those who aren’t technicians have a better sense of how their new world fits together. I don’t think it’s healthy to expect that most people will be content to treat the web as a magical brochure that only a privileged priest class possesses the secret knowledge to manipulate. Besides, I find the problems faced by these sites interesting for the same reasons son1 expressed, and I enjoy talking through them. They’ve led me to think a lot about how I would solve them, which I will hopefully discuss in a useful way in the future.
Fourth — and here’s where the interesting part of this post actually starts, I think: I don’t consider the current state of music sharing sites anything more than a temporary step in the music industry’s inevitable evolution. The point I want to make by all this is that the present state of affairs does not constitute a complete solution; we’re not done yet.
I don’t want to discount the well-made interface of Muxtape or the excellent aggregation and social features of the Hype Machine. They are both impressive sites and their creators deserve all the recognition they’ve received and more. But although these things add value, the essential underlying reason for these sites’ popularity is that they give music away for free.
Free, but not too free, that is. The digital music sharing problem was solved suddenly and completely about a decade ago, but that solution made the record companies understandably unhappy. They scrambled to put the genie back in the bottle and had some success. Now these new music-sharing sites are gingerly stepping back into the light, providing music in a way that’s pretty clearly still illegal under the existing legal regime — is anybody cutting checks to ASCAP or BMI? — but which the recording industry will tolerate because of the sites’ limited scope or promotional power or influence among elites or simply because they haven’t yet noticed them. If a site becomes too convenient or powerful it will no doubt get sued into oblivion or yoked with a crippling licensing agreement, and users will be out of luck until another plucky startup creeps under the radar and into the daylight.
I have very little patience for this ridiculous dance. The music industry is in its senescence, and that’s fine. It used to be that they’d provide an advance, which let a band afford to make an album from which they would receive no money but on the strength of which they could tour. This system worked well enough but came at the price of massively distorting effects upon the way our society consumes music, from “convenience charges” to pay-for-play to the goddamn Spice Girls movie, all of which were inevitable as the majors formed a cartel and began to impose rents on the industry.
But these days it’s cheap enough to record an album without an advance — believe me, I know, as Charles, Spencer and Aaron have been thundering away in the apartment’s hallway for a couple of weeks now. Bands still aren’t going to receive much money for the music they record, but they can presumably still earn a living on merch and touring. They’ll treat their studio output the way they treat making flyers or putting together press kits: as a loss leader.
That’s how I see it shaking out, anyway. It would be nice if the new order made artists richer, but I don’t see it happening — the median artist may do better, but the aggregate industry will probably wind up smaller. And I think the death of the majors would be a sufficiently positive development that it’s worth encouraging on its own merits.
Whatever’s going to happen, I think we should get on with it. At the moment a lot of media companies are adapting to the digital age by giving away content to users through their browsers, but making it really inconvenient for them to use it any other way. I think that strategy is incoherent — it’s just not compatible with how digital technologies work. Pointing that out is why I wrote these posts, and why I developed that full-text RSS tool. If making your customers’ lives less convenient is your business plan, you need to think a little harder. Or find another line of work.
Of course I don’t mean to accuse Anthony of the Hype Machine or Justin of Muxtape of making people’s lives harder. They’re doing just the opposite! But the regime under which they’re working is ridiculous. Right now they serve at the pleasure of companies who think that making a digital copy is the same as theft, who make consumers’ lives worse, who don’t represent their artists’ interests well and who accomplish it all via a copyright system that is both laughably outdated and a poster child for regulatory capture. This has all started to change, but now we need to finish the process.
So look. I’ve gone on and on here. I don’t pretend I’m going to personally have anything to do with the continued decline of the record companies, mostly for the reasons outlined in point one, but also because I’m not even trying: I’m not releasing any tools to help do it, I’m just describing their viability. But somebody else will come along and do it — maybe a $30 networked DVD player from China, or a custom iPhone application, or whatever. The envelope that HM and Muxtape have pushed will continue to be incrementally advanced, even as those contributing to the effort will repeatedly decide that no, their tool was the logical stopping point and any further efforts are an outrage.
But we are not at a stopping point, and efforts to imply that we’ve solved problems that are basically unsolvable amount to artifice — even if done so as to make worthwhile functionality legally possible. This is a point I feel strongly about and consider to be worth sharing, and that’s why I wrote those posts — and this one.