Unaddressed Problems, Unintended Effects

The availability of streaming audio and downloadable tracks on social networking sites may help to continue to reduce the number of teens who participate in illegal downloading. Indeed, the more time spent on MySpace or Facebook, the less of it that can be spent trolling Kazaa. However, it remains unlikely that engaging networked youth through innovative marketing will invoke the resurrection of album sales.

The industry is operating in a changed landscape where real world norms often do not apply. Before the Internet transformed the ways in which listeners are exposed to new music, fans were compelled to purchase hard copy releases at record stores. Picking and choosing which tracks to buy, much less whether to buy them or download them to free, remained inconceivable. Indeed, what basis did young listeners have for ever imagining that music could be free? But then it was. The arrival of file-sharing services marked the death of music delivery as the industry, artists and fans had known it for so long. Now that a generation of young listeners has come of age, potentially, without ever having purchased a hard-copy album (or ever paying retail price for digital downloads), the music industry is faced with a conundrum: not only must they find innovative ways of marketing to teens, but they must decide what to market, when traditional albums simply are not selling.

I. Changed Attitudes

Although illegal downloading has subsided since its highpoint in 2004, it remains evident that teens do not equate online piracy with physical theft. Accepted norms concerning ownership have not mapped onto the digital landscape. In the digital world, file-sharing, itself, has become normalized among young users.

With "no reason to pay for music" due to its online availability, digital natives have come of age as consumers conditioned to expect low cost access to their favorite tunes. Although acknowledging the illegality of unauthorized downloading, many teens have come to view the practice as justified. They regard the fact that "'lots of people'" engage in the practice, and that music remains prohibitively priced for many young consumers, as sufficient reasons to ignore the law. At the same time, (most) teens would not consider these excuses as ample support for stealing store merchandise. Clearly, there is something unique about the online realm in general, and the downloading of digital media in particular, that is shaping young attitudes.

The exact source of the disconnect between the physical and digital media appears to stem from more than mere tangibility. Despite evidencing confusion regarding copyright regulations, teens generally attempt to stay on the legal side of the law when uploading content to sites such as YouTube. From believing that such uploads are fair use to including an "All Rights Reserved" disclaimer on the footage, teens often make good faith efforts to fit video uploading within their individualized understandings of copyright law (id.). They do not tread as carefully when downloading copyrighted music files. While the lack of physicality marks an obvious distinction from hard copy media, it does not serve to distinguish YouTube content from music and video files traded on peer-to-peer networks. One distinguishing factor may be the cost associated with use.

Television, from the young adult's perspective, is a free good. When parents are paying the cable bill, or cable is included in college room and board packages, the cost is not readily evident to young adult viewers. Furthermore, most major networks now provide full episodes online for free viewing. Thus, even if a teen misses his or her favorite show one evening, there remain other ways of legally watching it for free.

Similarly, most videos found on the web are free to view on their respective host sites. Teens likely feel that they are doing no wrong by posting such content on a more frequently visited, freely accessible platform, such as YouTube. Even if their actions are violating copyright protections, they are more likely to be doing so unwittingly, unlike teens who download media from P2P networks.
Mashups also contain material often found for free on the Internet as combined and interpreted by a third party. The teen who posts a photo or video mashup that he has created may regard it as his original creation, with which he is free to do what he wants. Any media integrated into his creation was simply 'raw material.' Again, the contribution of an original conception distinguishes 'mashed' media from stock songs downloaded on Kazaa. A mashup may implicate copyright concerns, but, even in the mind of an Internet user without any copyright knowledge, it is distinct in form from a popular mp3 track.

Music and movies are also available for free, though in more limited capacities. One must either pay admission to see a film on the big screen, or purchase or rent a copy of the movie once released for sale. A movie only becomes 'free' when it airs on network television a couple of years after its initial release. Music, arguably, is available for free on the radio. Likewise, artists on MySpace often feature streaming audio versions of recent hits on their pages' embedded players. However, only that music which the record label or band seeks to release to radio and Internet platforms remains freely accessible, and it is accessible only at prescribed times. In contrast, sitcom writers do not (generally) hold back fully produced episodes, making them available only to select viewers.

Even though differences exist, distinguishing music and movies from other forms of media based on cost of access remains a fuzzy distinction. While one could argue that the accessibility of album-only tracks remains bound by those willing to purchase the album, the purchase of released singles tends to be more popular among casual fans. Additionally, core fans will be much more willing to actually pay for the entire album as an expression of support for the artist.

What truly differentiates the types of treatment afforded non-tangible media in the minds of teens, ultimately, may be a simple "I don't know". Notwithstanding a lack of concrete justification, it is clear that teens do not have the same qualms about "stealing" digital music as they do music from the store. One hopes that this distinction is created by a skewed understanding of property and copyright law rather than the simple fact that digital pirates feel they are immune to prosecution. Indeed, if it is the former, education and early involvement in both the creation and responsible use of copyrighted works may change prevailing attitudes. However, if the latter, those who hope to engage digital natives in a discussion of copyright protection lack an ethical basis from which to work. If the latter, the increased exposure to 'long tail' listeners of a band's music may win over a few additional core fans, but others interested in obtaining a track or two will continue to turn to their peer-to-peer standbys.

II. Implications for Artists

Even if illegal downloading were to subside, and word of mouth marketing continued to 'break' new artists, it does not follow that album sales would correspondingly increase. Arguably, purchases of complete albums have always been limited to core fans, with the majority of the public enjoying a favorite single either on the radio or, when they were still produced, by buying the single in hard copy form. However, the decline in overall sales coupled with the prevalance of single track purchases may result in industry pressure to devote creative resources to the production of individual tracks rather than cohesive albums.

Marketing through social networks, in many ways, encourages the trend toward a single track market. Bands may generate buzz by previewing an entire album online, but by doing so, they allow the listener to identify those tracks 'worthy' of downloading. If only a few tracks are desired, the listener may feel less guilty about downloading them illegally, or may elect to purchase them as single tracks from an authorized outlet to avoid having to pay the full album price.

Granted, the ability of fans to pick and choose tracks could also induce bands to produce higher quality records from which every track has 'single' potential. (In a recent editorial, Quincy Jones argues as much, asserting that artists can "save" the album, in part, by ensuring all tracks are of equally compelling quality). This would likely lead to longer periods between albums, the antithesis of what a sales-hungry industry and a 'next-big-thing' seeking public demand. As posited above, online advertising and distribution inevitably will compel a shift in emphasis from recording albums to cutting new singles, despite the fact that albums, if they sell, are more profitable. Releases of EPs and individual tracks will increase in popularity, as labels grow hesitant to devote the time and resources into the production of a full album that will not sell.

Besides affecting the content of releases, social network marketing also encourages a reduction in time between releases, again, supporting movement toward a more single-oriented production model. Network buzz tends to center around new releases and tour announcements. By spreading out the release of tracks instead of compiling them into an album, bands could engender a more enduring conversation.

The creative implications of a shift in production emphasis are more difficult to discern. Thus, while social networking has opened the door for unsigned artists to get their music heard, it has the potential to force major label acts to sacrifice artistry for efficiency. If the ability of social networks to expose the listening public to new music is viewed as a means of increasing the quality of mainstream tastes, then this resultant shift would be by no means ideal. Artists would be under pressure to increase the quantity rather than the quality of output, negating the 'raising the bar' effect that exposure to broader sounds might otherwise engender. One wonders if the most compelling 'web difference' of music marketing is that with decentralized control comes unpredictable, secondary results.

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