MicroMart – Music For All

Music For All

Submitted for publication March 1999 – Not Published

In mid January MicroMart printed my first ‘Bob Says’ column, where I described how the internet has changed working practices in areas as unexpected as scrapyards. That same day the radio news carried stories about record companies swamping peer to peer music sites with spurious content to force people into buying CDs again.

I suggest that this particular genie will never be put fully back in its bottle, and that its time to rethink the music industry model.

There’s a fight brewing:

In one corner we have astonishing growth of hard drive capacity. In just thirty years we’ve gone from IBM’s then groundbreaking 60Mb ‘Winchester’ to 100 Gigabyte plus drives advertised in Micromart for about £1 per Gb. Western Digital are already making 200 Gigabyte drives and the affordable terabyte drive is probably only five years away. A few calculations suggest that, given modern data compression techniques, a terabyte is enough space for over fifteen THOUSAND CDs – which must be close to the size of Elton John’s collection… on one hard drive. Five years on from that and one hard disk will probably have the capacity to hold every piece of music ever recorded since Edison recoded ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ on cylinder in 1877.

Although I must confess, even to a music fan like myself with a collection of several hundred treasured CDs, there’s something faintly obscene about the thought that the computer storage capacity of several African nations is probably utilised in England today, just storing Kylie songs.

That faint spinning sound you can hear is probably Charles Babbage.

In another corner we have the growth of broadband, always on connections, wireless and 3G phones enabling people to find and download whatever they want from wherever, often illegally.

In the third corner we have the record companies, frantically trying to protect and justify their existence, while former stars such as Bowie, David Essex and Marillion are already developing direct business models which circumvent the old dinosaurs.

The final corner contains the consumer, bullied, confused, ripped off and trying to get the best deal for themselves. And that best deal is often the illegal one, because free is a pretty tempting price.

There are options though. The technology exists today to support micropayments. Some solutions even support payment by bank accounts and cash, so you don’t even need a credit card to use them, thus opening the market to teenagers. Using such a micropayment model there is no reason why the record companies shouldn’t embrace the ‘10p to download’ model. That’s one way forward, and that particular way would be encouraged by the technology companies who are keen so sell bigger, faster kit.

But going forward, what about even smaller payments…(picopayments?) say a fraction of a penny to hear a song once… on your home media system, or earpiece radio. Charge up your playlist, and listen when you want… no storage issues, no need to buy bigger and faster hard drives, no disputes when couples divorce over the ownership of the media collection.

Music back where it came from, before Edison, in the ether, transient, not trapped in media.

Update – August 2009

It’s ten years since I wrote this article, and ‘Terabyte’ drives are now affordable – around the fifty pound mark – but the next quantum leap in disk storage is still a few years away, so I got that half right.

However, I would suggest that I nearly got it right about free music.

The recent introduction of ‘Spotify’ and other similar online services provides online listeners with an unlimited feed of the music of their choice for a subscription of ten pounds a month – or free with the (very occasional) advert. A tenner a month equates to less than a penny a song for an eight hour day.  

Okay, not quite Arthur C Clarke, but a respectable result I think.