Friday, November 9, 2007

187 On The Album

Ars reports that Jay-Z will not be offering his latest album, American Gangster on the iTunes Store. His reason is an interesting one: he doesn't want the album broken down and sold as individual tracks (something that iTunes requires but many other online music stores do not). From what I can tell, the general consensus is that he should just offer the album as individual tracks and be happy that people want to buy his music. This issue lies at an increasingly busy intersection of technology and art that I am fascinated by so I want to dig a bit deeper into the details.

In reading many of the responses to this announcement I was struck with how strong the sense of entitlement is among many on the internet. Granted the quasi-anonymity that the internet provides can certainly skew people towards the whiny end of the scale it still seems like many people feel that artists owe them something. It is telling that people who, by their own admission, are not Jay-Z fans are indignantly demanding that he "get with the program" and just offer his tracks up on iTunes like everyone else. Even many Jay-Z fans are using this as further rationalization for their use of peer-to-peer networks. There is a wonderful irony to someone saying, "why don't you offer your music the way I want it" out of one side of their mouth and "I don't actually pay for your music" out of the other. So where does this sense of entitlement come from?

Like many of the problems plaguing the embattled music industry, I think much of the responsibility lies at the feet of the record labels and the RIAA. Their policies have been driven solely by greed for so long that they don't know any other way to operate. This is an industry that routinely sells CDs (which cost pennies to manufacture) for $18 while giving the artist an average of less than a dollar per CD sold. Ask them why and they will spew a river of garbage to put Cuyahoga to shame. The reality is that the relationship between labels and artists has always been one-sided which is why many established artists are looking at abandoning their labels entirely. So the label's greed has hurt the artists they claim to promote and has alienated the fans that they claim to serve.

Before the internet there wasn't much that a disgruntled music fan could do. You either paid the exorbitant cost of a CD or you listened to the homogenized sound-gelatin of the radio. The emergence of the internet, along with completely destroying the traditional distribution model for digital media, has provided a forum for the disenfranchised music fans. It is appropriate that an industry enslaved to the economic principle of maximizing profit would be blindsided by a technology that trumps its strongest suit. Manufacturers spent years perfecting CDs to the point that they cost almost nothing to produce. Labels hired armies of lawyers to craft contracts that would turn artists into indentured servants. Then Napster came along and the whole game changed. The cost of distribution shrunk to almost nothing and now all of the music fans, sick of being overcharged for mediocre product, revolted en masse.

So now there are myriad P2P tools that allow anyone to easily get their favorite music for free and music fans (for the most part) are gruntled. Like any revolution, the digital revolution of the early 21st century has left some behind. The artist, long at the mercy of the labels, can now see a way out of bondage but the internet has not yet fulfilled that promise. As in many revolutions, some of the P2P revolutionaries have taken things too far. What started as a rebellion against the records labels has transformed into a culture of entitlement. The motto of "free music from corporate tyranny" has been perverted into "I deserve free music".

To be honest, I'm not a fan of Jay-Z but I do support his decision to not allow his album to be split apart. Technology has dramatically changed the landscape of music, mostly for the better, but music is still a creative endeavor. A painter is (usually) given input into how their paintings are displayed in a gallery. This is because the gallery owner is not solely driven by a desire to sell paintings, they have tempered that with a desire to respect the artist's intent and creative sensibilities. In this context I think that Jay-Z's request that his album be appreciated as a whole and not as individual tracks is completely reasonable. In fact I would argue that anyone selling his album has a mandate, just like a gallery owner, to respect his creative intent. Napster and its mutant offspring may have demolished the distribution model for music but this does not destroy the relationship that an artist has with their work.

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