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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2009/07/27
by David Steinberg

In Which I Single-handedly Save the Music Industry

I’m afraid that this month is about writing vows and toasts so I’ll have to make this column quick. (Hey Dean, did you know that a pair of tickets to Festival 8 [1] makes the PERFECT wedding gift for a columnist?) However, I’ve always been a good multitasker. Let me take a quick second away from the planning and solve the problem the music industry can’t figure out.
Here’s the issue. I think people should pay for music – the 47 days of music in my iTunes directory are all legal – as do bands, but the kids these days with their baggy pants and their file sharing sites have their own ideas. Despite the best attempts to persuade and out of control lawsuits, that’s not going to change. The kids are used to getting their music for free. How do we monetize albums so that there’s an incentive to actually make albums?
This idea came about when there was a rumor that the price of an iPod would go up but would give a year of unlimited downloads at the iTunes store. People are out of the habit of buying music, but between cell phones and cable and Internet, paying a monthly fee to get a service is something we all do. Suppose iTunes (or Amazon or someone else) had a policy that for $10-20 a month, you got unlimited downloads of music, say $10 for mp3s, $20 for FLAC [2]. This wouldnt be a rental. You’d get to keep the music. The download site would keep track of how many downloads there were for each album, and the money would be dished out in proportion to that. The more people download your music, the more money you get.
The advantages here are pretty clear. Instead of fighting downloads, bands would be encouraged to support them. The word of mouth power of the Internet could be unleashed for good, where bands could make money just by getting some buzz and taking over everyone’s head for a day or two. If this catches on, all sorts of interesting music could be supported, regardless of what a label thought of it.
So here’s the catch though. How do you get people to subscribe to this when the download sites are free? The main trick is to make it easier than dealing with them. The illegal sites are a bit of a pain. They require memberships and you have to be referred by someone and you have to keep your ratios up. Amazon’s and Apple’s stores are much easier. If the price is kept low – and I suspect that ISPs could be talked into subsidizing the costs to some degree because bit torrents take up so much bandwidth (especially with ratio requirements) that they’d be willing to pay some money to dramatically lower the amount of that happening – people would be willing to join just for the convenience of having any music they’d want available.
A second reason for people to join is that there should be monthly contests pitting fans of one band against those of another. Any paying member of the community gets one vote, and the winning band gets a monetary prize. Get the bands involved in promoting your site because they’d want to win. You think you can’t get indie fans to want to register in a battle between two hipster bands or 15 year old girls to vote on which new boy band is better? People do this sort of arguing all of the time. This way they can have their opinion matter and enjoy trying to punish the band they hate.
The third thing that can be done is to go all Internet 2.0 here. Let users publish blogs on site about what cool music they found. Have your downloads (and the ratings you gave each song) be searchable; that might even inspire people to make second accounts so they don’t have to admit their Air Supply addiction. Everyone thinks they’re the music expert. Here’s a way where people could be rated, where you could be the 48th most popular blogger in the electronica world so you’d get your friends to make new accounts to try to push you to ahead of that guy you hate in 43rd. People love to fight about music, and tell you why they’re right and – more importantly – you’re wrong. Tap into that and there are infinite amounts of revenue to be made.
So there you go. This is an idea that works with the Internet instead of against it. It could easily work and have all sorts of side benefits that further promote music. So how do we get from here to there? For that matter, how do you get the labels on board? Hey, I can’t do everything here. I gave you the idea music industry. Figure out how to make this work, and save your companies before the Internet finishes the job they’ve started.
[1] Did anyone else notice that they loosened up their photo policy by the way. Maybe someone actually reads this column?
[2] $10 a month sounds so low, but if you can get 30 million users (not that unrealistic seeing how Apple has sold over 200,000,000 iPods), that becomes 3.6 billion dollars of annual income.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at
He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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