An acquaintance of mine asked me why anyone would ever buy music when there are multiple on-demand streaming services available in India for free. I can answer the question from my perspective:
- Quality – I am yet to see any form of streamed music that matches the quality of CD music. In India, internet service (whether it is broadband, Edge, 3G, or any other variety) is erratic and/or slow. Even in the West, where these problems don’t exist, streamed music is nowhere close to CD quality. I may sound like an old-timer but when I am home, I use my CDs when I can instead of plugging my iPod to the home theater. The difference is mind-blowing. And for people who plonk a good deal of money on a home theater, it makes sense to spend on CDs to get the most out of their investment. In fact, when I rip my CDs, I use the AAC encoder instead of MP3. Although AAC files take more space, the sound quality is a lot better. When storage becomes cheaper and more compact, I know I will be re-ripping all my CDs in WAV format. Forget about CD quality, I also haven’t heard streamed music that matches the quality of the 256 kpbs songs that are available on iTunes.
- Physical Ownership – I like arranging (and re-arranging) my CD rack. I like showing off my collection to people! I enjoy reading CD inserts. I also enjoy spending time on my digital collection. I constantly update ID3 tags. I like the fact that the songs I have on my device songs have special meaning for me unlike everything else that exists on the cloud. They are a manageable subset that I listen to more frequently than everything else.
- Everything in one place – This is specially relevant for Indians who tend to have eclectic tastes. There is no single streaming website that can sate my interests – rock, pop, jazz, Bollywood, Koliwood, Mollywood, Carnatic, Hindustani, Bhajans and some really obscure, independent stuff. One of my all-time favorite albums is a fusion instrumental album called Conversations by L Subramaniam – not available on any streaming service. I don’t want to go to different places to listen to different music.
- Independence – I don’t like being dependent on things I don’t have control on – availability of internet, internet provider reliability, the streaming company (its financials, its agreements with the labels, etc.) – to be able to listen to music.
Which doesn’t mean I don’t use streamed music. I do. I use it to discover new music and to try something new before I buy it. Nobody can deny these differences but I understand that there are many who are willing to overlook them for one thing – streamed music is free.
To each their own.
Pirates (distributors and consumers) often invoke Stewart Brands’ iconic phrase “Information wants to be free” to justify piracy. In a recent discussion with a friend, I argued that Brand used this powerful phrase to suggest that information should be easily available to everybody, not that it should be available free of cost. My friend’s counter-argument was that in India’s context, availability was truly an issue. He told me about how he ended up buying a pirated DVD because the original was not available. He did buy the official DVD when it was eventually released but it was evident that he didn’t really feel obliged to.
While I advocate purchase of legal music, I am unable to find fault with people who are driven to pirated goods in cases like this. I can totally relate with them.
- Some time ago I wrote about being unable to get hold of Raghu Dixit’s album. I haven’t listened to his music since then – poor quality internet streams are not my cup of tea.
- I ended up buying the music for the Tamil movie, Vinnathaandi Varuvaya, on the iTunes US store, because it was neither available in any physical store in Bangalore (I tried three different ones), nor in any internet store (I tried about a dozen). What was even more shocking? The music label that has the rights, Sony Music, does not even have an India site. Really Sony?! Is that how important the India market is to you? Because of your supply issues, I ended up paying for this album double of what it should have cost me in India. This for an album that had to be one of your bestsellers in 2010.
I know there are other people (like this) who jump through hoops to get legal music.
Music companies – get your act together. Stop whining about piracy and start making your content easily available to paying customers:
- Improve your supply of CDs as well as digital music. Even the pirates are doing better than you.
- Leverage the long tail. Stop focusing on only the ‘big hits’. The cost of digitizing and distributing music is incremental. Make everything available for download, even, scratch that, specially, the non-hits.
- Do a Hulu. Join together and make it easier for people to buy digital music. Google India has done a great job of aggregating streamed music. You can do the same for downloadable music. Don’t make us hop through all your websites to find music.
- Develop an India-specific distribution strategy with variable pricing. Don’t forget the bottom of the pyramid. Flood the market with the music equivalent of shampoo sachets – low bit-rate music on pen drives or phone chips. Peg it at a price point that makes downloading/distributing pirated music not worth the hassle.
Make “Music wants to be free” your motto. Or, watch musicians and movie producers bypass you and start self-publishing as you become irrelevant. Worse, watch pirates destroy your industry.
In the last couple of days, our blog got a nice spike in traffic. A quick peek at Google Analytics showed that most of the new hits were for a recent post regarding A.R. Rahman. Almost all the hits for this post came from a Yahoo Group and good ol’ Google helped me figure out that this group belonged to an A.R. Rahman fan club. One of the members of this group (Thanks Rivjot!) had apparently shared the link to this post with this group.
The post elicited the following exchange in the Yahoo group:
Thanks, Rivjot for this. I agree with him
To me, if we agree with the writer then it would mean AR hasn’t given music in 2010 which is not as good as his music before 2009 but that is not the case here. 2010 was really a good year with varied genres of music by AR.
My agreement with him is about ARR’s popularity being down up North in 2010, not his quality of work. Whether ARR’s music in 2010 was as good, better or worse than previous years is a subjective take. I think his quality has not suffered at all, just his popularity.
I don’t agree with the author’s assesmen of 2010…he clearly hasn’t heard VTV or Endhiran (Robot doesn’t count as its dubbed..both albums were popular and were of spellbinding quality..also how can people overlook 127 Hours??…if it were some other Indian composer they’d act like it was the moon landing!
- I have heard both VTV and Endhiran songs (in fact, my son is a huge fan of Endhiran songs). VTV is very good but I didn’t enjoy Endhiran. I have also heard the soundtrack for 127 Hours and watched the movie as well. As I wrote in an earlier post, I liked the score for 127 Hours but I liked The Social Network more. I still think his work in 2010 as a whole does not match up to his earlier work.
- A.R. Rahman is probably the only Indian composer with a truly Indian identity, if not global (as opposed to a state or industry or language identity). When it comes to him, I don’t think there is a North-South divide just because he happens to be from the South. If there is a North-South difference of opinion, it’s because of the inaccessibility of some of his music due to its language (I did make this point in the post that triggered this debate).
- Of course, my views are subjective. So are the opinions of the fans above. Becoming a fan is not just about the quality of music (although that plays a big part), it is also about some very personal associations we make with songs and artists. Those personal associations are different for each one of us and make it very difficult for us to be rational and objective while discussing our favorite music or artist. And there is nothing wrong with subjectivity in this context. The world would be so boring if everyone liked the same music.