Why do we like to collect music?

It’s been a couple of days now since I read it, but I keep thinking about an article I read in The National Post, which has been running a series of pieces about the seven deadly sins. The one I read on Tuesday was all about greed, and in particular, about how some people hoard music. But these people aren’t collecting antique wax cylinders used in Edison’s time, or 78 rpm slabs from the Victrola days; they are collecting mp3 files — in some cases hundreds of gigabytes worth of them.

For example, the story describes a member of a group on Last.fm (called the People With an Absurdly Large Music Collection group) who has more than 75,000 files, or about 368 gigabytes worth, which would take almost a year to listen to without a single repeat. Depending on how you calculate it, that’s equivalent to about 7,000 albums or CDs. One of the good things about collecting mp3 files, of course, is that you can have 75,000 of them on a single hard drive, whereas 7,000 albums or CDs would fill several rooms in your house and/or your basement.

Collecting albums seems to make a certain amount of sense from a sort of fetishistic point of view, though, just as having an absurdly large library does (like one of those ones where you have to climb a giant ladder that runs on tracks around the room). Albums and even CDs are physical objects that you can look at and hold, and album covers were a great art form at one time, something that has sadly been lost with the move to CDs and mp3 files. I was just talking with a friend today about how much I loved to look at the old Yes covers by Roger Dean, and Pink Floyd and so on.

But what point could there be in collecting 75,000 mp3 files. Not only would sorting them and tagging them and so on be a gigantic pain, but you can’t even really look at them — unless you run them all through iTunes and use the Coverflow view, I suppose. But still, are you going to flip through the equivalent of 7,000 albums? No. Of course, I guess the guy (and they are always guys) with 7,000 or even three million actual albums probably never looks at half of them either.

I only have about 3,000 songs — but the main reason I do is because I like to put them on shuffle and get surprised by a song that I can barely remember ever downloading or ripping, but one that I remember listening to way back when. That’s a great feeling. And it’s even better when you can do it with a select group of songs you love, rather than just waiting for one to come on the radio by accident. What if you had access to a constant stream of all the music you could possibly want — the way Fred Wilson describes in his recent post? Would people still want to download and keep songs?

Hey you kids — knock it off back there

I debated whether to write this post on the brouhaha (or is it a kerfuffle?) between TechCrunch50 — which is being run by Mike Arrington and Jason “I’m more famous than you” Calacanis — and Chris Shipley’s DEMO conference. After all, it’s really a lose-lose situation: if I agree with Mike then I’m one of Arrington’s toadies (as some commenters have accused me of being), and if I agree with Shipley then Mike will take it badly.. But I just can’t resist a good blogosphere donnybrook or “bitchmeme,” so I figured, what the hell, why not wade in.

Off the top, I think Mike saying that DEMO “needs to die” is a little strong. As Carla Thompson of DEMO writes at Guidewire, we’re just talking about a couple of tech conferences here — it’s not the Battle of Biscayne or the War of the Roses, or even the battle between MacLeod and the Kurgan in Highlander (great movie, even if Christopher Lambert’s Scottish accent is laughable). Still, there’s no call for Carla to say that Mike’s ego is over-inflated and he needs to “get over himself.”

The bottom line for me is this: Jason Calacanis (unfortunately) is completely right when he says that DEMO’s model is completely untenable — or should be. Charging companies $18,500 for a three-minute pitch is just ridiculous, no matter how many times you talk about all the mentoring and coaching and contacts and stage managing you get. If I’m a startup, why don’t I just keep the $18,500 and buy my own mentors and coaches and whatnot? Or better yet, buy some food or pay the hosting bill.

Now, TechCrunch50 (which started as TechCrunch20 and then became TechCrunch40) is hardly a charitable enterprise, as Cynthia Brumfield has pointed out in the past. The two lads are likely to pull in several million at least, depending on their costs — and yes, there are fees to take part in the “demo pit” (which I picture as a sort of Jell-O and dirt-filled kids’ swimming pool type of arrangement, like something you would see on the Gladiators TV show), but they are an order of magnitude smaller than the fees that DEMO charges for a few minutes of glory.

There’s no doubt that Mike’s pugnacious attitude (much of which is for show, as far as I can tell) can rub people the wrong way — and I would expect it’s doubly irritating when he happens to be right, and when he’s also making you look bad in the process, as I think he is in this case.

Record biz online strategy, version 9.0

After months of rumours — and years of talking about it — MySpace is launching a comprehensive music service involving three of the four major record labels (for some reason that remains unknown, EMI wasn’t part of the announcement, although some say it will soon join the venture). According to PaidContent’s description of the conference call, which none of the labels participated in, the music service is a joint venture that will have separate management, and will involve downloads and possibly streams at some point, but may not be riddled with DRM.

Almost from the moment it became a social phenomenon, which would be three or four years ago now, MySpace has seemed like an ideal vehicle for music — and in many ways it has been an ideal vehicle for musicians to reach their fans, to communicate with them, to share tracks (or in many cases only short snippets of tracks, thanks to the paranoia of the record labels) and to generally build awareness. But it hasn’t been a great place to actually buy or sell music, despite being a giant platform for social networking between artists and fans.

Some of that could be blamed on a largely stillborn music venture with Snocap, the startup backed by Napster founder Shawn Fanning, which promised to allow musicians to sell songs through a Snocap store widget that could be embedded on artists’ pages. Although that too seemed like a great idea, it ran into technical difficulties and Snocap changed gears several times before finally laying off 80 per cent of its staff. The assets were later acquired by the music network Imeem, which also has deals with several of the major record labels.

According to MySpace, there are 5 million musical acts on the network and more than 110 registered users (although some of them are likely people like me, who registered just so they could see someone’s profile, and have rarely been back since). So it seems like a slam-dunk to turn at least some of those 5 million into revenue-generating opportunities. So why hasn’t MySpace been able to do it before now? The record labels themselves are partly to blame for that, of course (and reading between the lines it seems as though this venture is at least in part a peace treaty to settle the lawsuit between Universal and MySpace).

Whether this new venture can break some of those old rules remains to be seen.

Memo to eBay: Just sell Skype already

At this point, I couldn’t really care less who eBay sells Skype to, whether it’s Google — as the current crop of rumours seems to indicate — or Microsoft, or even Dunkin Donuts for that matter (don’t laugh; I can see a business model there). As Fred notes, it has never made any sense as part of eBay, and certainly not $4-billion worth of sense, and it doesn’t make any sense now. Meg Whitman managed to sell that idea to a gullible board desperate for growth of any kind, and instead they got a bag of goodwill the size of Manhattan, which they eventually wrote off.

Skype could have a huge amount of value as part of Google. Maybe even as much as eBay offered in the beginning, but certainly a lot more than it has produced for the auction provider. Google has made it obvious that it wants to move into mobile with Android, it’s financing wireless initiatives — voice calling either on the PC or on a mobile makes sense as a place for Google to go, if only because it could integrate the app not just with Google Talk but with its core search business and its money-spinning keyword ad business. Let’s hope this one actually comes true.

Which is worse: piracy or anonymity?

The book publishing industry seems to be slowly coming to the realization that digital media affects them just as it does the music and movie business: The Times has a story about a bleak forecast from the London-based Society of Authors that “book piracy on the Internet will ultimately drive authors to stop writing unless radical methods are devised to compensate them for lost sales.” Hey, I know — what about a tax on ISP accounts? Some of those in the music industry seem to think that will solve all of their problems.

The story talks about how the Internet is “awash” with copies of entire books by J.K. Rowling and others, as well as chapters or excerpts from popular novels and other books, and throws in some scare-mongering about Google’s book-scanning project. Then the chairman of the Society of Authors, Tracy Chevalier, comes up with her view of the dark future that lies ahead if the Internet isn’t stopped somehow:

“For a while it will be great for readers because they will pay less and less but in the long run it’s going to ruin the information. People will stop writing. There’s a lot of ‘wait and see what the technology brings’ but the trouble is if you wait and see too long then it’s gone. That’s what happened to the music industry.”

Is the music industry gone? Hardly. It may in the midst of a painful transition from one business model to another, but it is hardly gone. Apple has sold billions of songs through iTunes, and both artists and record labels that are open to new ideas are finding ways to use the Web instead of just complaining about it. So are authors: Brazilian novelist Paul Coelho, for example, has been actively pirating his own books, and has found that his sales have increased by leaps and bounds.

He’s not the only one either — other authors are either providing copies of their own books for free or as a “pay what you want” download, or are offering chapters for readers to download. As one author put it on his blog, for a writer obscurity is a much worse fate than piracy (as Tim O’Reilly noted back in 2002). Ms. Chevalier would be better off helping her members experiment with some of these new models, rather than sitting behind the barricades waiting for someone to rescue her.


On reading Mike Masnick’s take on the Times piece at Techdirt, I think I may have been a bit too harsh with respect to Ms. Chevalier’s comments — although I will note that one of the prospects she raises as an alternative is government intervention, which seems to me to be a slippery slope leading to something like the music industry’s ISP tax. In any case, Mike makes a good point that at least she seems to be open to new models, and to that extent she should be congratulated.

Blogs and the “phone-in show” effect

During a semi-desperate search for something — anything — not April Fool’s Day related, I came across an interesting post by Sarah Perez at Read/Write Web about the psychology of blogs and “bitchmemes” (as MG Siegler calls them) and comments, and I thought she really hit on something. Her jumping off point was a recent post by Paul Graham called “How To Disagree.” As befits a post written by a thoughtful geek, it describes a kind of taxonomy of disagreement, and I’m sure every blogger who reads the list has either engaged in or been the target of one or more of those options.

As Paul and Sarah both note, disagreement seems to be far more prevalent in the blogosphere than agreement. Why? They have their theories — as Paul describes it, agreement “tends to motivate people less than disagreeing,” in part because disagreeing takes you into new territory (sometimes). And as Sarah says in her post, this phenomenon makes its way into blog comments as well, with the number of positive comments generally outweighed by the number of negative ones. As she says:

“It could be that 90% of the readers think the author is correct in their opinion, but only the 10% who feel differently have made their voices heard.”

This is something that we’ve seen at the Globe and Mail as well (and I’m sure other newspapers that allow readers to comment on news stories have seen it too). I call it the “radio phone-in show” phenomenon. Whenever you listen to call-in shows — at least the really popular ones — there tends to be an overwhelming number of callers who disagree, either with each other or the topic. And even if they agree, they are often incensed about whatever the subject is, whether it’s government waste or some stupid move by whoever the call-in show happens to be talking about.

Why is this? A couple of reasons, I think. One is that agreeing with someone is a sort of ambivalent feeling at best. Violent agreement is an unusual thing to see, in most cases. But disagreement is almost always emotional — even if it’s couched in logic. And it’s a strong emotion. People who disagree with something are motivated to pick up the phone and call into a show, or click the mouse and comment. People who agree are much more likely to just nod their head in agreement and get on with their day.

This phenomenon extends to those reading and/or listening as well, and is related to the “car accident” effect. People enjoy watching or reading about disagreement and in some cases actual violence, or the threat of violence. They may say that they don’t — but all the evidence suggests that they do. Perhaps because it’s a strong emotion, perhaps because they want to feel superior to someone, or maybe just because it’s fun to watch. Why else would DVDs of hockey fights and car crashes sell so well? It’s human nature. And the blogosphere is a Petri dish for human nature.