Conditioned To Steal: Popular Music and Obsolescence in America

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Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor

To understand the MTV Generation, the Millennials, and the epidemic of file-sharing that has preceded them, Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, might argue that not only do you have to look beyond the individuals, but also you have to understand the culture that they are a part of and where they came from.  With this, you must be able to appreciate the idea that the values of the world they inhabit and the people they surround themselves with have a profound effect on who they are.

The MTV Generation, whose adolescence and coming of age was heavily influenced by their early psychosocial exposure to popular culture in general and mass media in particular, is usually conceived as a "cusp" between Generation X and Generation Y.  These factors, along with peer pressure, resulted in a “peculiar, homogenous youth culture defined by a deep appreciation of the fashion trends, perspective, attitude and music popularized by MTV.”

“the obsolescence they experienced was primarily
due to technological innovations and not as
 psychological of a “want-turnover” rate.”

Compared to their parents, their views on obsolescence would have been greatly influenced by growing up with such semi-obsolete items of the pre-digital era as VHS tapes, audio cassettes and vinyl records.  While they were the second generation to have their perspectives mostly shaped through television, a large majority of the obsolescence they experienced was primarily due to technological innovations and not as psychological of a “want-turnover” rate.

While the earliest of the Millennials possess definable traits of both groups, the later majority of those whom are more pure in their ‘Digital Native’ roots may have developed different perspectives of obsolescence.  In relation to technology, ranging from cell phones, MP3 players, computers, and videogame systems, these items were probably still working while they were rendered not technologically, but psychologically “obsolete” by a newer, more trendy model.

In the world of these ‘Digital Natives,’ there are no “Joneses” to keep up with or profound innovations that renders others obsolete.  At this pace of change, they are just trying their best to keep up with everyone else.  The omnipresent digital divide between them and some of their peers only gets deeper as they try harder to stay ahead of the curve.  Among them, the fashions, music, and technologies of the day are quickly disposed of and replaced once they are no longer in style.

2.  Perfect Sound Forever

“Rip, Mix, Burn” has come to culturally describe this population of one billion youth whose digital hands have been known for their tendency to blur the boundaries between themselves and their physical world.  Yet, in recent years, that once highly controversial message that ran during Apple’s 2001 advertising campaign for iTunes has begun to wane in relevance and fails to describe the radical shifts in consumer behavior that have occurred during this time period.

“Most of all,” John Palfrey and Urs Gasser observe in Born Digital, “Digital Natives don’t think in terms of recorded music in the forms of LP’s, eight-tracks, cassette tapes, or even CDs, purchased at a record store; music, for them, exists in a digital format they can download from the Internet, move around, and share with their family and relatives.”  Increasingly, they also tend to view music as something that is disposable, songs can be simply deleted.

common handing practices have been known to reduce
that span down to only one or two years, which
renders the medium itself as a disposable.

With over two-hundred and six million iPods sold worldwide as of April 2008, it would seem as though music isn’t as readily being captured on discs as it was during the personal computer and CD-burner boom.  Even then, with proper care it was thought CD-Rs should have a shelf life between three to five years.  However, common handing practices have been known to reduce that span down to only one or two years, which renders the medium itself as a disposable.

Clearly, this isn’t “Perfect Sound Forever,” as the Record Industry had once imagined, but simply a means to an end for the youth whom embraced it.  As the CD-Rs planned obsolescence, what Giles Slade defines in Made to Break as, “the assortment of techniques used to artificially limit the durability of a manufactured good,” seemed to align itself perfectly with the lifecycle that lowest-common-denominator music adheres within commercial radio playlists.

Near the end of the twentieth century, Major Labels that embraced disposability and commercial music as a viable way to achieve repetitive consumption realized that in catering previously to niche acts and genre specific music, they had severely limited their potential market.  But, in abandoning their more risk averse, ‘gut-feeling’ mindset, they began to operate in a very conservative way, which caused them to try to minimize the very risks that built their industry.

3. ‘We-Species’ 

While branding was touted as the first method to establish a direct relationship between an artist and their fans, Major Labels knew that they lacked the means to position themselves and “their music” in the minds of potential buyers.  And, each passing year, the competition amidst the labels for a fan’s spending money only intensified and executives became eager to use whatever means they could in order to encourage fans to by “their music” rather than that of competitor’s.

Having already reaped the rewards that technological obsolescence garnered in the CD-boom where avid music fans aggressively replaced their vinyl with plastic discs, another problem loomed.  How do you take a highly volatile and unpredictable product like music, sell enough to grow your industry quarter to quarter, and then next year deliberately introduce music that will make those collections of songs old fashioned, out of date, and obsolete?

“In effect, what happens when songs make it on
their lists is that fans start buying the albums
because other fans are buying them.”

Psychological obsolescence,” Slade continues, “was a strategy designed to put the consumer into a state of anxiety based on the belief that whatever is old is undesirable, dysfunctional, and embarrassing, compared with what is new.”  As it turns out, MTV and Top 40 radio were perfect vehicles for driving repetitive consumption.  In effect, what happens when songs make it on their lists is that fans start buying the albums because other fans are buying them.

The CD-Release Complex, then, is formed by harnessing an audience’s true nature as a collective, rather than focusing the behaviors of individuals.  Music executives learned that if they wanted to influence the behavior of an individual they had to do so by attempting to alter the mass-behavior of the collective.  Only then could they influence a person’s behavior through a combination of emotions and impulses that had been rejected from awareness of the individual.

This phenomenon of behavior lies at the core of human nature, which is, as Mark Earls argues in Herd, because, “we are a ‘we-species’ who do individually what we do largely because of each other.”  The root of this idea is why lowest-common-denominator music is successful, because it’s made to be timely, not timeless.  Therefore, the disposability lies within music itself, because it too can be used as a form of obsolescence that will encourage repetitive consumption.

4.  Throwaway Culture

What we have is an entire population of ‘Digital Natives’ who weren’t conditioned to steal, but to ‘want,’ not only beyond themselves, but entirely beyond their means.  These kids are a product of the consumer culture that helped raise and instill them with their values.  While it may be that it’s their deep appreciation for and sensitivity to fashion that causes a very high rate of “want turn-over” in music, the velocity of the Internet sure doesn’t help either.

How did this all happen?  Slade further explains that, “modern consumers tend to value whatever is new and original over what is old, traditional, durable, or used.  Advertising and other marketing strategies have helped create this preference by encouraging dissatisfaction with the material goods we already have, and empathizing the allure of goods we do not yet own.  When dissatisfaction and desire reach a peak, we acquire the new and discard the old.”

“music executives don’t realize that they are trying to criminalize
the very demand they tried to create.”

In Free, Chris Anderson talks about the basic dilemma that underpins the economics of fashion, which also applies to music in that, “[Fans] have to like this year’s [songs], but also quickly become dissatisfied with them so they’ll buy next year’s [songs.]”  Yet, after decades of mixing forms of obsolescence with music in order to encourage repetitive consumption, music executives don’t realize that they are trying to criminalize the very demand they tried to create.

Furthermore, these executives need to realize that they won’t be able to understand why someone file-shares music if all they do is think about that individual’s personal choices and actions in isolation.  To paraphrase Richard Ling in The Mobile Connection, like their use mobile telephones, the “adoption of [file-sharing] is not simply the action of an individual but, rather, of individuals aligning themselves with the peer culture in which they participate.”

Now, it’s quite unlikely that these executives will be able to reverse the ongoing side-effects of having used various forms of obsolescence to encourage the repetitive consumption of popular music in America.  Having already caused an entire population of music fans to generalize their throwaway habits to cultural goods, sadly, those within the Record Industry must now learn how to monetize and encourage the continuous consumption they call “piracy” and forget the decades of repetitive consumption that made them filthy “rich.”

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  1. Nobody else commented, so I will throw rocks.
    Kyle is making, possibly more graciously, two points that I have hammered at repeatedly:
    First, the message of Big Music is: “You are better off if you listen to less music.” Let’s assume that a high school consumer can afford 1 new album per week. A serious file sharer is probably hearing 10 new albums per week.
    The corollary to that is, all dedicated music fans are now criminals. The social consequences of that remain to be explored. “…to a first approximation, every PC owner under the age of 35 is now a felon.” (author Clay Shirky, from 2003.)
    I semiseriously suggest that, as recorded music is now most often associated with criminal behavior, it is time to look seriously at regulating the industry which creates recorded music. Think of recorded music as an “attractive nuisance,” like an unfenced swimming pool. 🙂

  2. It is appalling that a website devoted to music (in this case, jazz) publishes an article which adds fuel to the insane idea that piracy is acceptable. Just because there is a need and desire for what’s new, new, new, doesn’t mean it’s ok to steal it, whether it’s this year’s car, shoes, or electronic equipment! The music industry was not what created a need for constant gratification; it is a function of the crazy pace at which most people live.
    And the problem with music (and film) piracy is that it does not put big corporations out of business, but all the small people such as myself and the millions of other artists who are trying to eke out a living creating music and art. The people who grew up file-sharing simply were not informed of the fact that it is, in fact, stealing, and the recent court cases about copyright should help put that myth (that it’s OK to pirate music) to rest.
    Fortunately, a new generation will be taught to respect intellectual property, and there will be a strengthening of copyright. I urge all musicians, whether in jazz and other genres, to join with ASCAP and BMI and support the Copyright Alliance, which is working to insure our continued livelihood.

  3. No body can deny that there is intrinsic value in music based intellectual property. However, the “free” music monster has been created and it’s not going away anytime soon. In today’s digital environment, it is more than ever up to the artist to create and continually increase their value and their music’s value so their intellectual property is truly worth something much more that people are willing to pay for.

  4. I’m floored by what people think is new. Really, trying to get kids to listen to this year’s song instead of last year’s is new? Inane.
    What has happened in music is mind bendingly simple: what used to only be copied in real time ( you had to wait for your vinyl to play, even your cassette could only do double time ) can now be copied in compressed time ( you can copy a four minute song in well under a minute and you can trade/share instantly, no more going over to your friend’s house ).
    Adding to this is the lower production/distribution costs of music today, taking away some of the labels’ power to determine who can get heard.
    All this blather about culture? Waste of time.
    What to do?
    Best would be a revamping of our copyright laws and fines to better map to the reality they need to govern. Step one: create a copyright web site that would let you find out who holds a copyright, how to contact them, and set limits on response times ( if you can prove you contacted someone and he did not get back to you within five days, he forfeits his right to protect his copyright ).
    We are all spending way too much trying to come up with an original take on what’s happening today. NOTHING IS HAPPENING THAT WASN’T HAPPENING BEFORE, it’s all just happening faster.

  5. I’d like to hear what you have to say about the way this ‘disposable’, quick-hit, quick-fade music consumption trend is affecting artists as they are composing, recording, and releasing new material. I believe that this trend has made artists, knowing that their careers may depend on getting on that hot 100 downloaded list, start writing songs that have more short-term, immediate appeal.
    As a musician, I know when i write songs; sometimes one of them just has that catchy, ‘hit’ characteristic – easy to get stuck in your head, simple chord progressions, a repetitive chorus and an upbeat tempo. Now in the past I’ve just been content to vomit out a few of those tracks a year, not take them too seriously, and when the luster fades, I drop the track from my setlist and from consideration for release.
    With the change in apparent attitudes regarding dispensability, perhaps it would bump up my band’s likelihood to get noticed by a blogger, or strike a quick ‘hit’ on YouTube or some other distrib site to record and release these pop baubles, because the recipe for those songs is such that it encourages quick crush-type love for the track.
    Of course I fear the ‘OK Go’ effect, how one catchy track could doom a creative and multi-textured artist to being considered a one-trick-pony.
    I’d be curious to hear from other artists about this topic. Is this change in culture changing the way you write, or changing the filter you have on what material gets put ‘out there’ for consumption?

  6. Interesting, very thoughtful and thought provoking – but I think you’re overthinking and/or reaching on some of the psychology/emotional underpinnings.
    Yes, of course we are all – and by “we”, I’m talking about every generation, period – ruled by ‘collective’ thinking and wanting to be cool and plugged in. And, yes, greedy business interests overpower the overall ‘for the betterment of mankind” with “planned obsolescence” (a concept utilized for decades, if not the past century, in virtually every manufacturing process).
    But, this piece and the underlying quotes give far too much credit to the powers in the record industry to imply they ever implemented any strategy to psychologically manipulate the music-buying public. At least beyond the core desire to sell as much music as possible to as many people as possible, especially the younger generations for whom music has been key to growing up since the 1940’s.
    The original guys who guided the birth of rock’n’roll in the 50’s and the explosion in the 60’s were basically businessmen who loved music (as a day-job), and strived, or conned, their way into selling music and records. The 70’s were the transition decade from music guys to corporate-music guys. By the 80’s the money was just overwhelming, but the corporations had taken over.
    This whole (following) paragraph, while true, does not reflect the reality of how and why music had always been sold, going back to Edison and RCA in the beginning of the 20th century.
    ““Psychological obsolescence,” Slade continues, “was a strategy designed to put the consumer into a state of anxiety based on the belief that whatever is old is undesirable, dysfunctional, and embarrassing, compared with what is new.” As it turns out, MTV and Top 40 radio were perfect vehicles for driving repetitive consumption. In effect, what happens when songs make it on their lists is that fans start buying the albums because other fans are buying them.”
    Yes, MTV and Top 40 radio promoted and helped sell disposable music, and had a stranglehold on the business in the 80’s, and into the 90’s. But, the basic promotional and business structure of selling records and music had been in place with radio, television, and teen magazines going back to the early days of Sam Phillips, Elvis, RCA and the nascent days of rock’n’roll. MTV was the latest technological and promotional vehicle to provide the same services as Top 40 radio and Ed Sullivan did for the 60’s explosion. “Repetetive consumption…” has ALWAYS been the point!
    Music men – the A&R departments – historically have always searched for whatever will SELL to music fans. Whether that was big bands and Sinatra in the 40’s (my mother was a Sinatra ‘swooner’), Elvis in the 50’s, the Beatles in the 60’s, or one-off one-hit wonders, or novelty songs by Ray Stevens or Snoopy & the Red Baron or Taco. And, like the hippie culture in the 60’s and disco culture in the ‘70’s, the music business has always fired periodic cultural fixations (fads, phenomenons, whatever) and promoted the monetization of those trends along with the press and Hollywood.
    (And the last sentence in that paragraph has been postulated for decades for music, movies, fashion – any form of pop culture. And it plays out in elementary school, middle school, high school, college, the “20’s/young adults”, and on into adulthood for new parents. And then for, and with, their kids – where it starts all over again.)
    But the starting point for the record companies (the manufacturers) was always the music, or a potential ‘star’, that could be sold to the public. It never came from some psychological evaluation that was then enacted into a plan to ‘dupe’ society into unwittingly buying something they didn’t need. (Putting aside the obvious – that all ‘business’ (other than food and shelter – for the most part) have elements of manipulation, false promises, and duping the public into buying their products – whether they ‘need’ them or not.)
    Of course, music has always been culturally disposable. Other than the lasting greats, going back to the Romantic composers of the 17th century up through the icons like Elvis, Beatles, Aretha, etc., most music comes and goes. And MTV seeded the days after the very early 90’s, when artist development ceased to function at corporations focused on the quarterly bottom line.
    Yes, we have “classic rock”, etc., but in another generation or two, that era/genre will fade, too, as the people who made those artists popular start to fade away and pass away. (Although, it’s been established that the latest generation/s are the very first to go back to their parent’s music and appreciate it – see “Guitar Hero, Rock Band, etc. Believe me, that’s limited to a small segment of songs. My nu-metal/screamo loving teenage boys love a few songs by Ozzie, Aerosmith, etc., but shrug at the Beatles or Stones.)
    And this statement flies in the face of the history of the record business: “…But, in abandoning their more risk averse, ‘gut-feeling’ mindset, they began to operate in a very conservative way, which caused them to try to minimize the very risks that built their industry …”. The fact is, risk was minimized exponentially, as soon as the corporations moved in, took over, and implemented budgets that were expected to be adhered to. That was in the latter half of the ‘70’s decade. The innovation and risk-taking culture based on musical intuition of legends like Ahmet Ertegun, Berry Gordy, Bob Krasnow, Joe Smith, Jimmy Ienner, Morris Levy – to name a few – were over. They ended with the ascension of corporate takeovers, when the overpowering goals were quarterly profits and pushing up the stock price to earn glowing quarterly reports and end-of-the-year dividends, which is the only bottom line for corporate masters. In other words, it no longer had anything to do with musical quality, it was only about profits and (minimizing) costs.
    This is a factor that is continually underemphasized and a foundational reason that the decline of the “record business”. Yes, to reach ‘today’ required the advent of technological advances that eventually enabled the internet to destroy the value of the manufactured physical product and the distribution pipeline. The digitized CD, the digitalization and creation of the song file, the internet, and the eventual tsunami of digital files were the factors that led to the overwhelming theft (call it whatever you want to, but it boils down to taking something that is not rightfully yours) that devastated the world of the physical product, and the value of recorded songs. The digital world will be the only world for every generation born after 1995
    This seeds for this history can be traced back as far as 1978 (the year of the monster gorilla blockbusters, Saturday Night Fever and Grease, which opened the eyes of the corporations as to how much money could really be made).
    The digital world will be the only world for every generation born after 1995
    Again, I enjoyed reading the piece and your thoughts – very insightful. And, as someone who grew up in this business in the heyday times and has subsequently watched it fall apart, I’m picking on a few things. The fact is, the ‘heyday’ is over and gone, and a new day is being built. My kids won’t know from a CD, much less vinyl. A CD to them is nothing more than a temporary storage medium useful until the moment the songs can be transferred to the phones or MP3 player. They look at Facebook, MySpace and the web the way me and my dad looked at newspapers.
    But… as usual, it’s never one factor, or only one thing (like the Internet). There are some basic, core factors from the old days that will never go away, no matter how many websites, social networks, or file formats come and go. A great song and a great live performance are necessary to make a great cultural trend – no matter how it’s monetized, delivered, and stored.
    But the times have already changed – some things for better, some for worse.

  7. I don’t think Kyle is advocating piracy by any means, but rather offering some clues as to why we see it on such a massive scale. It was a ‘perfect storm’ of sorts in which music technology, cultural attitudes and opportunity lined up to create an atmosphere where rampant piracy was almost inevitable, and even deemed justifiable by millions.

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