For $79.99, the Sansa slotRadio can be yours. Around the size of a compact, it’s an MP3 player preloaded with 1,000 songs from Billboard‘s rock, country, hip-hop/r&b and oldies charts. Thematic mixes like “workout” and “chillout” are available too. There’s no software to install or discs to rip. Just stuff in your earbuds, press play and listen.
At 8 cents a tune, slotRadio is a bargain compared with what Jammie Thomas-Rasset was ordered to pay for the twenty-four songs she downloaded and shared on Kazaa, a file-sharing network. In 2006 she was sued for copyright infringement by Capitol Records, with legal support from the Recording Industry Association of America; when a federal court handed down a guilty verdict in June, the damages amounted to $1.92 million. That’s $80,000 per song, including Gloria Estefan’s “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You.” Quite.
Ours is a time of fundamental shifts in the way music is made, sold and experienced, and music’s value–as art and commodity–has never seemed more arbitrary and harder to assign. Thanks to the upswing in file-sharing and other ways of obtaining music in digital formats, album sales are measly and unreliable in terms of profit margin. Ten years ago Britney Spears’s sophomore album Oops!… I Did It Again hit No. 1 with a record 1,319,193 units sold in the first week. Last year she hit No. 1 with her comeback album Circus, but first-week sales topped out at 505,000 units, nearly twice as much as the No. 1 spot sells most weeks yet nowhere near the debut of Oops!. As Charles Blow recently noted in the New York Times, a study conducted by PRS for Music, a nonprofit royalty collection agency, “found that of the 13 million songs for sale online [in 2008], 10 million never got a single buyer and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs. That’s less than one percent of the songs.” For slotRadio, the gold mine isn’t the cache of songs on its MP3 player but the tiny device itself, a jumble of cheap wires and microchips that will inevitably need to be replaced. In this case, the music is advertising that draws ears to a piece of disposable technology.
Most of the artists and bands profiled by Greg Kot in Ripped earn their keep from touring, which seems to be the most trustworthy source of revenue available to small and even midlevel musicians now that file-sharing has decimated album sales. Kot’s profiles range from the most newly minted stars of indie music (Dan Deacon) to the scene’s elder statesmen and crossover successes (Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails). The more established bands he discusses are making creative use of the new marketplace–from Paul McCartney partnering with Starbucks to the direct-marketing and distribution models of Prince and, more recently, Radiohead and Trent Reznor. The latter two have embraced, to varying degrees, the practice of offering middling-quality downloads of songs at a low or even pay-what-you-want price and selling high-quality physical copies of albums later at set prices. Because Prince enjoys a massive and loyal fan base, he has been able to sever ties with major labels and corporate promotional networks, selling albums through his website and forging direct, albeit virtual, connections with fans. As for the fans Kot interviewed, many admitted to not paying for most of the music in their possession, with some wrestling with guilt and others proclaiming their defiance of “the man.”