After recent news that music sales were down again in 2003, the music industry has renewed their complaint that digitally enabled sharing of music is hurting their sales. The thing they refuse to recognize, at least outwardly, is that the sharing of music has always been one of the most important marketing forces for the music industry. I don’t mean online peer-to-peer sharing, I mean sharing in the more general sense, like the time-honored tradition of making mix-tapes and giving them as gifts, or a friend handing another friend a CD and saying “listen to this, I think you’ll like it”.
The big issue here is how serious music fans decide what music to buy. I’m talking about the people who maintain large CD collections and spend a lot of money on music — the customers that the music industry should be holding close to their hearts. These people not only spend a lot of money themselves, but they influence their less musically-inclined friends. These people tend to have idiosyncratic tastes, and are picky to the point of snobbishness. They don’t buy music based on music industry mass-marketing. They buy it based on hearing it and liking it, and the way they hear new music is by sharing it with friends. Radio used to play a part, too, but consolidation has turned music radio into a steaming pile of crap, so what’s left? Networks of like-minded friends sharing music are what’s left.
Recommender systems based on collaborative filtering, like the one used by Amazon.com have tried to assume the role played by social networks by keeping track of individuals’ tastes and then recommending to each user those things ranked highly by other like-minded users. The problem with these systems so far is that they don’t have a rich enough representation of the music they’re recommending to account for the idiosyncrasies of listeners’ tastes. For example, I love all the AC/DC albums up to and including Back In Black, but I think their stuff after that is mostly crap. On Amazon I rated all the early stuff highly, so of course it recommended all the later stuff that I don’t like. If I rate all the later stuff very low it’s unlikely that it will be able to form any kind of high level concept that will be useful in recommending things to me. If Amazon can come up with a system that takes those ratings and recommends old Krokus albums to me, because they capture the flavor of Bon-Scott-era AC/DC, then they’ll have something! But I’m not going to hold my breath for that. This kind of thing happens a lot. I love Cake’s Comfort Eagle, but I’m not a such fan of Fashion Nugget. I could go on and on. The essential point is that recommendations from like-minded friends aren’t enough. I need to actually listen to the music before I decide if I like it. I don’t just mean listening to 30-second snippets on Amazon or the iTunes Music Store. I mean really listen to the music. Listen to whole songs, in high fidelity, from start to finish, to see how they develop. Of course, I don’t want to pay just to sample, because a large part of what I sample is crap, and I don’t want to pay for crap.
Recently I’ve happily discovered a bunch of new stuff to listen to, thanks to a handful of instances of this kind of music sharing:
- After lamenting to a friend that I haven’t been discovering new music that I like, he sent me a mp3s of a few songs by bands that he’s been listening to: The Strokes, The White Stripes, and And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. I liked some of the stuff, and I’m not so sure about others, but I’ll probably end up buying at least one album from this.
- A couple of days ago, I was running iTunes in my office, and it discovered someone else’s shared iTunes library and made it available to me. I have no idea whose library it was, but their tastes overlapped with mine in several areas, so I started playing some of the stuff that they had and I didn’t. I didn’t like everything I tried, but I loved several songs from Garbage‘s Beautiful Garbage, so I bought the album from the iTunes Music Store.
- An entry on the Boing Boing blog recommended Skeewiff‘s awesome electronic remix of the Soggy Bottom Boys’ “Man of Constant Sorrow” from O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I’d never heard of Skeewiff before today, but I’ll be checking them out soon. I would never have discovered them if I’d had to pay just to hear one song.
The music industry needs to recognize that mainstream radio sucks ass, and MTV and VH1 don’t play music videos anymore, so there’s not much left but word-of-mouth and music sharing as ways to really market music.