The great free MP3 download fallacy yet again

"Orchestras must embrace new technology following a BBC experiment that highlighted the huge demand for classical downloads. More than 1.3 million people downloaded Beethoven's symphonies for free during a two-month period last year. That proved there is a large untapped market for classical music, according to US critic, composer and consultant Greg Sandow. "

From BBC News report on last week's Association of British Orchestras Conference.

Pliable says if I offer free Beluga Caspian caviar from my web site and there are 1.3 million takers does that prove "there is a large untapped market" for Beluga Caviar?

And elsewhere some rather more rigorous research comes up with thought provoking results which I would have thought would have been of interest to critics, composers and consultants at a major orchestra management conference:

"Music downloading creates listener apathy - internet downloading and MP3 players are creating a generation of people who do not seriously appreciate songs or musical performances, British researchers said. "The accessibility of music has meant that it is taken for granted and does not require a deep emotional commitment once associated with music appreciation," said music psychologist Adrian North. "

From research by the University of Leicester that monitored 346 people over two weeks to evalauate how they relate to music.
In the light of this research it is amazing just how prophetic were the words of that great composer Benjamin Britten forty-two years ago:

"Anyone, anywhere, at any time can listen to the B minor Mass upon one condition only - that they possess a machine. No qualification is required of any sort - faith, virtue, education, experience, age. Music is now free for all. If I say the loudspeaker is the principal enemy of music, I don't mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study, or as an evoker of memories. But it is not part of true musical experience. Regarded as such it is simply a substitute, and dangerous because deluding. Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a tape-machine or a transistor radio. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts. It demands as much effort on the listener's part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener."

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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Is classical music too cheap?


oceanskies79 said…
Live music has its charms. It is more than listening. It is an experience.

I don't have a MP3 player so maybe I am biased in my preference for live music.
Hucbald said…
Perhaps it's because I grew up in the phonograph age and have always had access to recorded music, but I never gave this issue much thought until the last few years. I'll have to ponder some more before I can add constructively to the discussion, but it does seem right to me: Music is not as appreciated today because it's too easily available.
Anonymous said…
An interesting pair of links.

My question is this? What proportion of the UK population (and I'll limit this to the UK for simplicity's sake), currently purchase classical music CDs? Unfortunately, the BPI, who'd probably have this information, password protect their statistics section of their website.

But it does seem as though in 2004, Classical "albums" made up 2.6% of all sales in 2004 (among CDs), a fall from 4.0% in 2000.

One way or another, we can be certain that a significant proportion of the population do not buy classical music at all. It's not so much availability of the music that drives this figure, as interest in the music as a whole. There are plenty of very cheap CDs out there to sate interests, and the music's freely available on two national FM radio stations, to greater or lesser extents. Nonetheless, for various reasons, CD sales in this category are falling.

The reasons, I'm sure, are many and various, probably starting with the marginalisation of music in education. The BBC's "experiment" showed that there was significant demand. It's something for nothing certainly. Does giving away something devalue the product? To a certain extent, yes. But it's quid pro quo. Some of those 1.3m people who downloaded those files, probably went out and bought another Beethoven CD because they liked what they heard. That's why Gramaphone give away an excerpts CD every month. Sales come off the back of it. Sure, an excerpt or single track is a different thing to a full piece, but if it costs nothing and generates interest in the music, how can it really be bad.

Classical music is seen as thoroughly inaccessible to many people. A completely closed shop. What version of a piece should I buy? Specialist shops and departments in the larger London stores can seem scary places. Opening up the music like this is a toes in the water way of doing things.

If giving away some music gets a few more people interested and listening to the music, can it be a bad thing?

The caviar analogy is false I believe. Aside from the fact that there probably aren't enough sturgeon left in the Caspian to meet this demand (there's an international ban on you know!), there's obviously an inherent cost in giving people produce compared to media that can be distributed either cheaply or freely (Actually, I bet if I stood out in the street in front of Fortnum and Mason handing out tasters of caviar, I probably would drum up a few customers). But if you truly believe that there's not a larger market out there for music than the shrinking one that is currently buying music, then giving away the music is not going to make much difference. Unless there was someone who held off buying a Beethoven boxed set because they could download a series of mp3s, then you can at least feel good about culturally improving the lives of the masses!

The other link, discussing the commoditisation of music as a result of the increased availability of mp3s is quite interesting. It's possibly true, but then the same argument could probably be made, to an extent, for CDs and every other recording medium. Is the answer to remove them all and force us to attend concerts? According to research from BRMB (TGI, 2005), only 24% of the UK adult population attended any kind of musical concert (pop/rock/classical/jazz etc) in the last year.

If I'm just downloading hours of pirated material through p2p systems, then no, I'm probably not investing much emotional committment to the music. But if I'm buying it via iTunes, what's the difference to purchasing the CD via Amazon?

As a whole, we are buying more music these days, so perhaps, overall music is more of a commodity these days. But the medium is irrelvant. More physical CDs are being sold too. It's more a question of fitting listening to music into our lives. It's how we listen to the music.

The Britten quotation is interesting, but I think he was on dangerous ground if he required me to travel, possibly hundreds of miles, if I wanted to experience his mass. Far be it from me to disagree with him, but aside from the obvious financial issues that mitigate against this, mightn't I actually appreciate the music even more, if I've had the chance to listen to it on CD before I attend? Aren't the liner notes the same as the programme? If you haven't experienced the music live then you haven't truly experienced it. But second best is better than not at all, surely?
Anonymous said…
This debate focusses on 2 issues: (a) live versus recorded; (b) is there enough interest / will downloadable music increase it?

Recorded music offers some advantages which make me prefer it:
* I know what I'm getting, because I can read reviews, listen to samples on sites like amazon and cduniverse, borrow from my local CD library, etc.
* I can listen when I want.

I understand the argument that this may lead some people to treat the music as a background to some other activity, but I don't see itas a serious objection:
* Usually what I listen to as background is music I've already come to love by several intensive listenings.
* Music is pleasure or it's nothing. I see no reason to dictate how others enjoy it.

Downloads often fill gaps left by the odd marketing decisions of record companies:
* Some make excellent recordings then fail to market them. EMI is notorious for this and many Nimbus releases are EMI recordings deleted by EMI after marketing failures.
* Record companies often delete excellent recordings either globally or in national / regional markets for no apparent reason. I see 2 common symptoms of this: (a) records which are higly praised in reviews but are no longer available; (b) the number of recordings which are flagged as "import" on amazon.

The great "classical" works can all be interpreted in several ways, and different listeners have different preferences. A good performance which is deleted might be the one that some listeners would prefer to hear and to recommend to thier friends. Making these performances available via downloading can only the increase the size of the audience, it can't decrease it.

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