Music – art, business, DRM and… convenience

Music as an art form is unique in how it connects with its audience. Music wires directly into some part of our cortex connecting into some pleasure receptors in our brains. Music changes moods, it can make you want to get up and dance. There is some physical about it. OK, I am rambling but the point is music is unique and it connects with people in unique way.

Artists need to sell their work in order to survive and thus by definition art is a business. But it is not supposed to be. The music business is probably the most blatant example of an art as business. It is the definition of the dichotomy of art and business. Which leads me to DRM…

People get very worked up about DRM as if it is some violation of human rights. It is not. It is a tool that people employ in an effort to get paid for their works (back to art as business). Here’s the rub though. DRM makes music consumption inconvenient. And convenience is an enabler for music consumption. Convenience is one of (if not the single most important) driver of new media formats in the last 50 years. Let’s look at the successful formats of the last 50 years:

  1. Radio – radio was successful because radios became cheap and they provided a way to listen to music in your home (as opposed to having to be at the performance in the village square of at the performance space). It was really the first time people could enjoy music away from a live performance.
  2. LP – the LP was successful because it made it convenient to choose what you music you listened to and when in your home. As such, it gave the audience an additional degree of freedom.
  3. Cassette Tapes – cassette tapes were successful because they delivered a more convenient form factor than LPs. They were portable and so music could be enjoyed in your car or your walkman (the beginning of the portable player). The Achilles heel of the cassette tape was poor reliability and terrible audio quality.
  4. CD – CDs were successful because they were less prone to breaking than the cassette tape and they delivered better quality (not hard given how bad cassettes were). In some ways they combined the benefits of the LP (quality) and cassette tape (portability/convenience).
  5. Compressed music (MP3, WMA, AAC etc., I am putting them all in a single bucket here because that’s how they are thought of by consumers) really took away the physical media aspect completely. As such they enabled a new level of convenience in that you could now enjoy massive amounts of music on a small portable audio device or your PC. Together compressed music, portable audio players and PCs really created a whole new platform for music consumption.

So why am I going on about this. Well, DRM makes music enjoyment inconvenient. It adds no new degrees of freedom. In fact, it does quite the opposite. If DRM was completely transparent to consumers, it would be a non-issue but it is adding inconvenience and so it is a step backward in the progress of music consumption. However, DRM as an idea to enable artists to get paid for their art is not really terrible idea. A good example of DRM (or more accurately copy protection) being successful is the DVD. The DVD is the fastest growing consumer format in history (at least it was in its hey-day). People love it. They bought new affordable players and bought and rented DVDs en masse. And they didn’t care about the fact that it was copy protected. Yes, some geeks cared but for most consumers DVDs were a great new and convenient way to enjoy movies. Can it be improved on as an experience? Yes, but the original experience still delivered something people wanted in a big way.

So DRM as a concept is not flawed in my book. However, most real world implementations are flawed. And this is unlikely to change any time soon…

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6 responses to “Music – art, business, DRM and… convenience

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