"Hi, my name's Iggy, please purchase my music."

As a big music fan, I was not surprised to read that a new report shows that those who download the most music illegally also spend the most money on music. I know that from firsthand experience. However, while this “sampling” theory has been suggested for years, it has generally been rejected by the legal community and, unsurprisingly, the record industry.

Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but it is safe to say that thousands of albums are released every year, with only a few hundred making a big splash. Still, for somebody committed both to buying new music and to discovering new music, this is a daunting figure. While there are recommendation sources that can aid in the search, sampling is the most reliable and effective method for determining how to spend one’s money on new music. In my case, I would even go so far as to say it was essential: while I’ve purchased hundreds of albums in the past few years, I can count on one hand the number that I purchased without hearing beforehand. In addition, many of those purchases were of albums that I would not have thought I would like without first hearing. Without sampling, I would have chosen to spend less of my money or to spend it elsewhere. As a result, I believe that courts and legislatures should take this economic reality into consideration when analyzing copyright infringement. The law should not publish downloaders if (but only if) their behavior actually benefits the copyright holders.

Still, while sampling increases sales for the most voracious music consumers, it clearly does not increase the purchasing of the vast majority of listeners, who are satisfied with a smaller collection of singles and the occasional album. In those cases, sampling is an end to itself: once the song is downloaded to the computer, there is no longer an incentive to go out and purchase it. As a result, the industry should look to create a model where sampling is possible but controlled. Current signs point in this direction. Services such as Lala.com offer free streaming for many releases, from the most popular down to the fairly obscure. Taking advantage of this, audioblogs and music review sites have incorporated the streaming into their sites, offering simple previews that could replace illegal downloading as the most effective sampling tool. Lala is careful not to replace music purchasing by offering limited listens without purchasing either a very cheap (10-cent) streaming license or a slightly more expensive downloadable MP3.

But the best practice is to make it as easy as possible to hear new music. While Lala is promising, the industry should look to find a way to further leverage cloud computing into its model. This would not require breaking the iTunes stranglehold on music listening. Instead, the industry should push Apple to incorporate streaming music into the program. While the other option–convincing listeners to switch to using websites as their music library–is still a ways off from effecting true change because of a general reluctance to switch over to the cloud (but not for lack of trying), Apple could accomplish this with the program easily. Such a change would serve the interests of music buffs, casual listeners, the record industry, and Apple.

Steven Reilly

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