Music not like water

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Hiller's Aerial Sedan

Back in the middle of the 20th century, plenty of perfectly reasonable people were convinced of not just the possibility but the inevitability of flying cars. Surely we would be zipping around in them by the 1980s, never mind by the oh-so-futuristic year of 2000.

Most have come to their senses about the feasibility of flying cars, thank goodness. But the urge to believe in flying cars doesn't seem to leave us-it simply gets funnelled into a different technological end point. Here in the 21st century, the internet seems particularly susceptible to the flying car syndrome, with all sorts of zippy schemes gaining traction within our net-addled culture.

With the music industry in conspicuous disarray, it's no surprise to see flying cars promised as inexorable destiny. The music industry's version of the flying car comes in a few different models, each with a similar bit of well-intentioned but goofy zealotry at its heart: the belief that converting recorded information to digital bits somehow renders the need to pay for recordings and/or the desire to own them as old-fashioned and unsupportable an idea as that of a wheel-driven, road-based automobile might be in a future of flying cars.

I don't know about you but I never got my flying car. And I would accordingly be very suspicious of utopian schemes that promise equally unsupportable concepts. 

The Future of Music

Among the music industry's current varieties of flying car are the "free music" model,  (promising that no one will have to pay for recorded music at all before long), the "all access" model (assuring us that no one will want to own actual copies of the music they like, whether digital or physical), and the "music like water" model, a variant of the "all access" model (emphasizing the monthly subscription concept).

While all of these models may be equally far-fetched, the "music like water" idea is the one that seems to be gaining the most traction in recent months, as Spotify founder Daniel Ek repeatedly pushed the concept in a publicity blitz accompanying the launch of Spotify-based apps within the Spotify player late in 2011.

So let's take a closer look at this particular fantasy, shall we?

"We believe music should be like water," Ek told CNN in an interview in December. "We want music to be everywhere and in every device."

Music should be like water: it's a spiffy-sounding idea, intriguing and inventive and a little mysterious. It's also ridiculous. Music, as it turns out, isn't anything at all like water. 

To the extent that entrepreneurs and futurists have been pushing the music like water idea for the better part of a decade---Ek didn't make this up himself, by any means---they have been doing so with a disregard for the nature of the very thing in which they claim expertise.

Music like water was first proposed in 2005 by Gerd Leonhard and Dave Kusek in their book The Future of Music, which was subtitled "Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution." The simile was created to describe a future scenario in which music flows into our houses as easily as water, or electricity, and paid for as a monthly expense, like a utility.

Note that the idea of music like water was from the outset meant to convey something different, and more radical, than the idea of a music subscription service. After all, unlimited, on-demand streaming for a monthly fee had already been in existence for a few years, via Rhapsody, when the water simile was set loose in the world.

Feels like free

The revolutionary idea here was that music, moving forward, would be literally like a utility---not a product any longer. In Leonhard's words, it "feels like free," the way water or electricity does. No one has to think any longer about buying a particular song or album. Music flows everywhere, without restriction, for little apparent cost, and without effort.

Right away, your "utopian thinking" alarms should be blaring. Utopian ideas never, ever come to pass. And what more utopian idea could there be, in the world of recorded music, than the idea of music "flowing everywhere, without restriction"? We already have subscription music services and none of them comes anywhere near to having every single possible piece of recorded music. 

And yet the very idea of music like water falls short if it doesn't offer everything: all the music that there has been and will be. Because, otherwise, there will still be a place in the world for people seeking out individual recordings, and buying them. This does not jibe with the music like water vision, any more than flying car proponents ever included the idea that anyone would still be utilizing their old-fashioned wheel-propelled contraptions.

But the music like water scenario involves an even larger failure than utopian thinking, as far as I'm concerned. The defining metaphor here-the comparison of music to water-is an ironically tin-eared one. Music is like water? Really?

Water is generic. Water has no particular shape or identifiable taste. The water that flows into your house is the same water that flows into your next-door neighbour's house. Water is a physical substance that supplies a basic physical need. Your tap water isn't the product of anyone's artistic talent. Your tap water doesn't feed your soul.


A song, on the other hand, is a very particular creation. It is the product of human imagination rather than an industrial process. Every song is different from every other song. 

Most important, in my opinion, is this crucial difference: to "consume" a song involves interacting with it not just physically but emotionally, even (often) spiritually. To compare the enjoyment of music to the more literal, physical consumption of the products brought to our house by utility companies is futurist bamboozlement. It overlooks precisely what draws people to music in the first place.

In the end, to insist that music is like water is to devalue this most particular and uniquely special form of interpersonal expression.

Note that I do not mean to be arguing against the idea of a paid music subscription service, which for many people has turned out to be a very useful and enjoyable thing. But I am very much taking issue with the hyperbole being used at this point to sell such services, especially if it continues to employ the ludicrous simile in question.

I understand that no one meant any great harm in the original idea. It's easy enough to see where it came from, as music delivery began to migrate, in the late '90s and early '00s, from stand-alone devices playing physical products to a large-scale, interconnected technological platform on which music had turned into electronic bits.

But this radical shift in delivery methodology does not mean that music is now itself some kind of large-scale technological platform. Because the internet exists, music does not now become some meta sort of entity that we should want or need to pay for in order to listen to "songs"; and songs are not, now, commodities written and performed to become part of a flowing, generic service called "music."

Something special

Music is in fact something special, something different. Anyone who has ever been touched by any kind of music knows this. Music is a mystery. Evolutionary scientists still can't figure out why it exists. I don't know why it exists either but I can assure you it does not exist to become "like water."

That all said, there are no doubt people out there who do, already, treat music relatively generically. These are the people like to "have something on," but don't listen too carefully. For such folks, treating music like water may be harmless enough. To them, perhaps, it already is.

But there is no reason to drag those of us who connect strongly with music down to the level of the most casual, disengaged listener. For anyone who has been touched by music in a way impossible to explain, the idea that music is like water is laughably off base---a ludicrous conception designed far more as a sales pitch than as a description of reality, either in the here and now or in some imagined, utopian future.  A flying car, in other words. Sounds great, but no one in his or her right mind is expecting to drive one.

By Jeremy Schlosberg, Fingertips Music

1 Comment

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first of all, this:

now, think about water. the water we drink. here in the UK, we're lucky enough to have the stuff pumped directly into our houses, at a cost which for many of us is negligible. clean, clear and cold, in near-limitless volumes.

somehow there's still a bottled water industry in this country that's worth over 1bn.

why? people will pay for premium. whether it's due to convenience, due to prestige, due to a wee hint of strawberry... think of music like water, and then think of music like bottled water.

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