And Then There Were Millions

by by Nick Morley

Over the last ten years a digital coup d’etat has overthrown media marketplace conventions. No longer do we have to meddle with real discs or bother driving somewhere or ordering something via the postal service; we, being the hyper-productive lazy-asses we are, would more readily just download the latest, greatest, proverbial hot cultural shit straight to our hard drives through the “series of tubes” we all know and love.
The truth is in the numbers. Apple, based solely on iTunes, is now the largest music provider in the world.—a company with no physical stores—tied with Walmart earlier this year for second place. Video-rental service NetFlix introduced video-streaming to its website in 2009 and it’s already used by some 42% of its 11 million-plus subscribers. The Kindle, Amazon’s e-book reader, is causing mass book publisher hysteria, and for good reason: from April to July of this year, 143 Kindle books were reportedly sold for every 100 hardcovers. Digital purchases of music jumped from 20% to 35% of all music sales from 2007 to 2009 according to the NPD, and digital movie sales increased 20% in 2009. This was and continues to be a market on the move.
As with any new revenue stream that consumers, producers, and distributors dive into in lemming-like droves, the three groups naturally began to smack into each others’ skulls, and through the usual suit/countersuit follow-ups they’ve managed to ask some questions essential to the continuation of a marketplace on the World Wide Web. What is ‘owning’ something that doesn’t physically exist? Does a consumer ever actually have full control over these ‘products,’ or is digital ownership no more than a glorified rental service? And what of the artists—are they stuck in the background, shuffled about by third-party players that funnel their output into only the appropriate channels for mass electronic consumption?

Undermining Monopoly
Currently the most disturbing trend in digital distribution is the continuing Cold War between borderline monopolies such as iTunes with the staggering number of consumers who download media without paying. The IFPI, an international body of music law, estimated in 2009 that 95% of all music downloads were illegal, and by last count (2006), the NPD said that illegal video downloads outnumber legal ones five to one. In addition to these staggering numbers, the myriad of sources where files can be shared has turned these law-breakers into an anonymous, legally untouchable mass that any practical company wouldn’t even consider trying to sue.
So, forced on the defensive, the industry mammoths have turned to the use of DRM, Digital Rights Management, to try and keep the files they sell from being used in ways they don’t approve of. Results were not as expected: Kindle caught heat in 2009 for remotely removing George Orwell’s (the irony) 1984 and Animal Farm from users’ devices due to a publisher squabble without any prior notice or consent from their users. In 2008, former free content stalwart Youtube transformed into a corporate police state by deciding to follow through on any publisher’s request to remove uploaded videos that didn’t explicitly cite songs or movie clips. And until last year, iTunes would not let any file downloaded through its store be played in any device but iPods, sometimes even giving certain playlists a limited number of burns to CD before locking it on a user’s computer for good. Even consumers had to ask—did these items belong to them at all? What kind of strings were attached without them knowing?

Viva le resistance
Whether these oppressive small-print policies are hampering or engendering illegal downloads is still subject of stalemated debate, though a third option on the rise may be digital distribution’s most encouraging—the artist-run service. While Youtube did its thing with free video uploads for all, initiatives like those at and Amazon’s Digital Text Platform are letting startup musicians and authors actually profit in the digital age for nary a penny. It removes the middleman—the industry price-and format-locking or a publishing group’s demands— and allows an artist to appeal directly to their fanbase. Bandcamp, recently buoyed by the release of Sufjan Stevens’ newest EP, even allows the albums to go for free (certainly an option to consider in the ever-expanding world of online interconnection). Still, these are relatively independent and, until recently, unnoticed projects—Davids to the Goliaths currently holding down a market filled with questions yet to be really answered in anything other than lawyerspeak. The balance is at least in question, though, and the norm- market dominance despite a steady stream of DRM controversy- is ripe for uprooting.
The success of creator-driven sites like bandcamp and, to a lesser extent, Youtube, combined with popular pay-what-you-want album releases from artists like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, is too great to ignore. These schemes appeal to the educated music fan, the one who could pay for music but refuses to to give it to The Man. With this demographic alone, a substantial amount of those illegal downloaders would give artist-run services a passing glance, which is all any website with ad revenue needs to begin to build a financial base. Plus, while Youtube bowed to corporate pressure, an artist-run market would be immune to such threats, as any free product is only let loose with the consent of the creator. Sure, it may take a few more bona fide big-sellers through the services to make a lasting impression, but the paranoid big digital industry had best be wary of this upstart trend. After all, following the French Revolution, did not Robespierre’s head also roll?

Nicholas Morley B’13 has a slingshot aimed, ready.