The trap of the filesharing debate

Sweden’s Hybris is an exemplary internet-savvy record label. The other day, on their blog, they reported on a seminar they held in Stockholm along with also-exemplary label Songs I Wish I Had Written, to discuss the future of music:

It was never said out loud, but in some parts, our original aim seemed to be there all along as a background in the discussion at the seminar. We never fell down the trap. Ah, yes, the trap. It is very hard to talk about the future of music, music that deserves respect, and not fall into the trap of the filesharing debate. The filesharing debate is over. There are nothing more to discuss. Unfortenatly that is mainly what is going on. Endless talks, discussions, laws, propositions and what nots about what to do about the big ‘problem’ of file sharing. Not much discussion about what to do if you are lost in music however. Or why to do it. Or for whom. Or how. Or where. And so forth.

There need to be discussions though. What are we going to do with our love for music? etcetera. [...] We feel that there haven’t been a lot of discussions between people in this crazy business. So far the discussions have been done in small circles of friends, in confrontative style in big media or at blogs, leading up to progress in some parts but no-one is really talking. Or maybe mainly, listening.

I recently interviewed their top guy, Mattias, who is an exceptionally articulate analyst of how labels should adapt to this new terrain. He articulated his stance on filesharing a bit more in our interview.

I view file sharing as a positive. It’s affecting the culture, listeners who are into our kind of music, they are more music fans than the general listener. That kind of person has increased in number over the last 5-6 years. In Stockholm now there are tons of clubs that play our kind of music. It’s 100% file sharing and the internet that we have to thank. All people involved in indie music have known that if we could only get exposure we’d be huge. The majors had marketing and budgets, but the internet made it easy for the independents.

mp3 bloggers are important in the development of mp3 culture. In the beginning there weren’t many mp3 blogs, it had very big impact if we put up our own site because everyone would go to the site. Nowadays mp3 blogs have taken that place. The label isn’t enough of a filter anymore. It’s great for us. If a big mp3 blog puts up a track by one of our artists it gives it credibility. It makes it easier for people to like it and accept the music.

Some more quotes from other label people are here.

He is quite right that what discourse there is remains stuck in the endless cycle of “what will we do about file sharing” instead of “how can we create a new model that works in this environment?”

Hybris’s website is worth exploring for the ways in which they are building a new model: giving some of the music away (on video too), emphasizing their global nature, blogging and maintaining a presence on many different online spaces (MySpace,, Facebook…).

On a related note, today Its A Trap contributors listed their 10 favorite 2007 Scandinavian releases, and many of us included Hybris/Adrian Recording’s Familjen on our top 10. Familjen is nominated for a Swedish Grammy and is getting Pitchfork adoration for their super super supercool video for Det Snurrar I Min Skalle, and recently won a huge online voting competition in which both labels made heavy use of social network sites for recruiting votes. This crew knows how to work the internet.

More on “the Radiohead economy”

Before it slips away, I wanted to draw attention to this excellent article in the Toronto Globe and Mail about the interpersonal elements of the Radiohead pricing experiment. It draws on an article I’ve used often when I teach nonverbal communication about tipping, which I thought was a clever link on the writer’s part:

But so far, economists don’t understand much about what motivates people to make payments voluntarily—and those of us doing the paying don’t understand it, either. When it comes to restaurant tipping, for instance, a “gifting” practice that continues to baffle economists, research indicates that the actual quality of service doesn’t make much of a difference to the tips a server receives. Although patrons invariably cite service as a major factor in how and why they tip, research data show that it only accounts for a 1.5% difference. What makes a greater impact, according to studies done by Professor Michael Lynn of Cornell University, is the degree of interpersonal connection we feel with a server. One subject in the study who made the simple change of introducing herself to diners by name saw her tips increase from 15% to 23%. Tricks such as touching customers on the shoulder, writing “thank you” on the bill and crouching beside the table to take an order were shown to generate even greater monetary rewards.

Another piece, also exploring the extent to which this model might be expanded into other products appeared recently in AdWeek. Its author speculates that games are ripe for this sort of pricing scheme, and quotes me (this is getting old, I know) making the interpersonal point:

In general, game developers build successfully on a key element of consumer-generated pricing: passion. According to Nancy Baym, an associate professor of communications studies at the University of Kansas who studies online fandom, that factor is the assumption or reliance on “an audience that cares about you enough to pay for something they can get for free.” It’s a dialog, she says, that “melds a commercial relationship with a social relationship. There’s something more than commerce.”

At any rate, both articles are notable for replacing hype with reasoned comparisons to other phenomena that rely on user-generated pricing.


On a personal note, my apologies for my irregular posting to anyone who misses more regular updates. At least until the new year posting will stay sporadic: We are hosting 4 job candidates in my department this week (during an ice-storm that has left Kansas in a declared “State of Emergency”) and next week I am headed off for an exciting little combined work and pleasure jaunt to Oslo and Copenhagen. Sunlight? Who needs it!

Social network sites: Migration or multiple residency?

People are buzzing more and more about the need to understand “social network migration,” particularly in the wake of what looks like a  mini-exodus of sorts from MySpace to Facebook. “Migration” is an interesting metaphor. It situates one site as Homeland, and implies that groups of people then pack up and move to a new land. Of course, “migration” also has a bit of a seasonal quality, implying that when the winds shift, people will up and leave once again.

I’m sure that’s happening, but there’s another equally important phenomenon we shouldn’t overlook: multiple residency. People are building digital abodes in more than one site. Rather than moving from one site to another, many people are hanging out in several of these spaces at once – something that is getting easier and easier with applications and widgets that import and export information across them.

I recently surveyed approximately 600 users of One question I asked was whether they used “any other social network sites such as MySpace or Facebook.” Two thirds of them said yes.

When asked whether a random friendship they had on was also a friend on another site, half of those who used other social network sites said yes. In other words, a third of friendship pairs on are also “friends” on at least one other social network site.

Two of my graduate students and I are in the process of making sense of the answers to the open-ended question of how they would compare their friendships to those on other sites, but I can tell you that they are all over the place. Some speak of friendships as being more important and exclusive because they are based on shared music. Some speak of friendships as more trivial and irrelevant because they are based only on music.

In my own case, there is a subset of my friends who are Facebook friends. I have more Facebook friends, but I will add almost anyone who seems to have a decent reason to want to be my friend on, but I’ll only friend people I already know or know that I want to know on Facebook.  Some and Facebook friends are LinkedIn and Flickr contacts. I’m not sure if anyone connects with me in all 4 of those sites, I don’t think so.

Each site manages different dimensions of our relationships, and I don’t particularly want it all fused into a single site, especially if that single site is under corporate ownership. By diversifying my social existence online I can foreground some relational qualities in each site, but I can also spread the risk of dependence on dubiously trustworthy longterm providers.

Thinking in terms of “migration” makes little sense if one wants to understand how people make choices amongst which sites they use for which purposes.

Doing a Radiohead?

As we all know, Radiohead self-released their record, In Rainbows, let fans pick the price for the download, charged up the wazoo for the immaculate box set, and is planning to release the cd on plastic for people who like stores to make their purchase as well. While controversy swirls — was the bitrate so low in an effort to make fans buy it twice? did 60% really pay nothing? did it really come out to just over $2 per download? etc etc (as far as I can tell, the answers aren’t public to date despite polls trying to figure it out), the concept has already become so watered down as to be almost irrelevant.

Witness the NME’s announcement that My Bloody Valentine are, as they put it, “doing a Radiohead.”

What does it now mean to “do a Radiohead”?

All it means is that you release a record yourself, on the internet.

No set your own price (which others did before Radiohead anyway, see Jane Siberry for instance).

No groovy box set.

Just a plain old “here’s our record, download it directly from us.”

I’m all for self releasing your music when it’s feasible, but what’s with giving Radiohead the credit for an idea hundreds, nay thousands, of other bands have been doing for years? Silly.

What should a middleman mediate?

In yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker wrote a piece about “Buddylube,” a middleman agency that specializes in making widgets for pop bands:

“The artists need promotion,” Eaton summarizes. “And all these new technologies of social media need artists.” So what if there was “a one-stop shop” — a Jiffy Lube, if you will — for celebrity-centric social media? Since then Buddylube has established itself as a middleman — Eaton prefers “concierge” — between dozens of social-media companies and scores of music stars (well, the Web presences of scores of music stars). Eaton compares the use of these tools with the kind of community-specific promotion that bands have always used — except that instead of putting up fliers in a particular geographic location, the target is virtual: Like offering a “skin” that decorates your Snapvine voice-mail player with a picture of Enrique Iglesias.

There is a bit of an implication, which Walker conveniently uses me to counter, that there is something insincere or artificial about a “concierge” mediating the relationship between rock star and fan, not unlike the Facebook fakesters I wrote about here. The point I’m quoted as making is that giving fans a way to spread your music around to other fans and potential fans is inherently positive. It says to the fan “I realize that you are an important part of my success, and here are some free tools that will give you pleasure and help you fill that role.”

I don’t think audiences expect that everything that comes from a band, or celebrity or — and Walker makes this link at the very end — politician will come directly from the hand of the one it represents. We’re used to publicists, spokespeople and speech writers. And we can do math and figure out that if someone has 10 fans, we’ll probably get things straight from the human in question but that this won’t scale to thousands, and certainly not to hundreds of thousands or millions. There is a real market for middle-people, and so long as there is no deception going on about it, I think that is just fine. It would be far worse to omit the middle people and skip the communication altogether.

What strikes me, though, is the extent to which this relationship-moderator market seems focused on filling out forms — fill in the blanks to create a widget, insert your video here to include moving images, add photos here, link to mailing list goes here, etc. Create a street team by signing up here and clicking this link to do this or that.

Once everyone’s got the technology down, they will realize that communication is not just about form, but about how the form is conveyed. It is about style as well as substance, or, as we hammer over the head in our communication courses, it’s about the relational messages that are sent as well as the content messages. Technomiddlemen are getting very good at crafting content messages and so long as not everyone has them, that’s enough. The mere existence of the thing is enough to send the message. But when everyone’s got them, the relational subtleties will matter even more than they already do. Understanding the tone to strike for each artist given his or her fanbase (and desired fanbase) is a sophisticated communication task — how do you speak to the new fan and the die hard at the same time? the casual listener and the devotee? PR professionals, artist managers, and their ilk are generally trained — through practice if not schooling — to speak to crowds. Speaking to crowds while also speaking to individuals and making it feel interpersonally meaningful is an increasingly important task that no technology can solve.