Why people don’t buy music

I’ve read a couple of different articles recently about how people aren’t buying music anymore. I don’t know if that’s ultimately true, but obviously the nature of media consumption has changed. Whenever I read an explanation of how are attitudes toward media have changed, I feel like people are missing some important points.

It seems that the consensus is we’ve stopped purchasing music for a couple of different reasons, the more prominent one being pirate downloads. The argument goes, “All these kids are stealing music, so why would they pay for something they can get for free?” Others point to the success of streaming products like Spotify, and argue that these provide better value at a cheaper price. There’s clearly some value to these explanations, but I find them to be too neat, orderly, and rational. I don’t believe that people are so simply rational.

I think an important issue that most people have overlooked is related to the idea of “collecting”. When people collect movies and music and books, they are really satisfying two different desires: the desire to consume the content, and the desire to amass a collection of physical objects.

When people collect physical media, I believe that they don’t simply want to listen to the music or watch the movie that they’ve purchased. Part of the reason they continually buy these products is because they want to keep and hold onto the resulting collection, perhaps even if they’ve lost interest in the movie or music itself. As a human, it’s comforting to “have stuff”. It’s aesthetically pleasing to see your collection on a shelf, and it’s comforting to know that it’ll be there in case you want it again. More than that, there’s satisfaction in building a collection that you can take pride in.

To take an example, let’s say you’ve put together a collection of every Rolling Stones album ever produced, including a bunch of obscure bootlegs. I’d imagine that, in addition to the pleasure you get from listening to it, you’d get quite a bit of pleasure from having created such a complete collection. It’s possible that you didn’t like one of the albums very much, but bought it anyway, since otherwise you would have had a sense of lacking. For most of us, having a large collection with a conspicuous absence is aggravating. It’s a hole that needs to be filled; an itch in need of scratching.

Now that things have gone digital, and the idea of collecting has lost some of its luster. A digital collection is not something you can put on a shelf, so you don’t get the satisfaction of having your collection on display. Perhaps just as importantly, the collection has lost its uniqueness. Sure, you may have all of the Rolling Stones albums, but you can just copy it and give it to your friend, and now your friend has all of their albums too. So there’s no status in having attained your collection, no challenge to the act of collecting, and therefore no satisfaction of accomplishment.

Aside from that, digital collections lack a certain personal touch. When you have physical copies, you might look at an old record and remember, “This is the first record I bought for myself when I was 16. I bought it with money from my first job. I listened to this exact physical record over and over until it started to wear out. Now there’s a scratch in this one part of the song, and I know exactly when it is from memory, because I’ve listened to this copy so many times.” We don’t create the same attachment to digital copies. There’s no physical thing to look at and be reminded, since the song has been transferred from device to device over the years. What you’ve purchased is just a waveform, and your copy of the waveform is the same as everyone else’s.

In fact, I think the issue of “piracy” also needs to be thought of in terms of a sort of hoarding instinct. Most of the serious music pirates that I’ve known were people who were obsessed with amassing a huge collection, sometimes such a large collection that they’ve never listened to all of it. The purpose of downloading was not to steal music to listen to, but instead it’s almost an obsessive/compulsive drive for completeness. They want to put together a massive collection of every song that they might ever want, even if they never make any use of it.

If you strip away the aesthetic value of collecting and the compulsive desire for completeness, the only value to buying music becomes the listening. You might think that listening to music is obviously the most valuable part of the process, but ironically that’s the part which has traditionally been free. You have been able to listen to the radio, loan a record to someone, or play a record for friends, and none of these things incurred a cost. Music has always been something that is shared and valued as a shared experience, and it still is. However, we have an industry built on charging people for the ability to amass a collection of music, and meanwhile the value we put on collections is waning.