The Music Industry, Remixed: A License to Listen

On my own site, I recently posted the riff Albums I Recommend But We Probably Don’t Agree On. I love those albums, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever repurchase music I already own again. This got me wondering what it would take for the music industry to sell us on buying our favorite songs in yet another digital format.

All of us, of a certain age, have already purchased some or all of our favorite tunes multiple times. First on LP, or perhaps cassette, then on CD. Then years after we’d eBayed the CD and found our old Napster-era MP3 to be low quality, we purchased it on iTunes or Google Play or Amazon Music or maybe signed up with Spotify. But after this generation of digital, will we ever buy again? We’ve already paid 2 or 3 or 4 times for the same track.

The music industry is, of course, always dreaming up the next reason we should purchase songs, especially the back catalog stuff that is pure profit. Next time around, perhaps your song will include lyrics to keep you from Googling the current public enemy of the record industry — lyric sites (like this or this or this) — or maybe include a karaoke version to sing along, or perhaps feature some ever more advanced Dolby mix of 16 channels, including four that only your dog can enjoy.

But whatever form it takes, there will be a next generation of digital music, and it will have to include all the music already in circulation. But I hadn’t given this eventual purchase much thought until the other night when my soon-to-be wife asked for a copy of her late mother’s favorite holiday album, Kenny Rogers’ Christmas. For reasons known only to lawyers at music labels, the exact record was not in the iTunes catalog. So for the first time, I used Amazon Prime Music. For the next month or so, we will now have two music apps with two music services: one for Kenny, and one for the hundreds of albums in my iTunes Match account.

For all its disruption in offering a wider catalog to the public, digital music is still packaged, distributed and sold like the physical copies that came before it. Instead of buying a CD or a cassette, you are buying a file. But therein lies the problem. Will you be expected to repurchase the file as tastes change, as formats improve, as iTunes fades in relevance or Google buys Spotify or whatever seismic changes await in digital music?

Yes, of course you will.

The solution is simple, but legally and financially extremely complex. Music should be a license to personal performance, not a file. If I want to hear Morning Phase from Beck, I should own a license to hear it in ALL formats— past, present, and future—for personal use. This would separate out the music itself — the valuable intellectual property — from the format of delivery.

As an example, instead of paying $1.29 on iTunes for a song, $7.99 for a digital album on iTunes, $9.99 for a CD, and $22.99 for vinyl, the music itself should have a price and the formats should have another.

How could this work?

The value of the actual music in the open market, based on the current prices for the album, seems to be about $4.99. It could be argued that iTunes delivery and distribution is worth, in this case, $3.00.

But what happens if I already own a “listening license” that cost me $4.99? I would now have the following choice of options for the album, hypothetically:

  • iTunes: $2.99
  • CD: $4.99
  • Vinyl: $17.99
  • Streaming, Annual: $0.049
  • Some format that appears in 2025: $35.00 or $0.002, or whatever is appropriate for license holders to hear this album in this format.

The advantage to the user is clear — you only pay for the IP once. This frees the industry to innovate music delivery by decoupling it from the value of the music. Startups could thrive in creating new formats for music and leave the labels to do what they do — licensing.

This concept could also be applied to the movie studios, as movies we’ve all owned on VHS and DVD and Blu-Ray will soon be on some format, physical or digital, in 4K. I’m sure video enthusiasts will say that 4K is worth it, regardless of what it ends up costing. But I am not sure there are many films I would buy again in yet another format. Especially if, for example, a change of format includes sacrilegious edits like an unwelcome appearance by Hayden Christensen.

But the Beck album is excellent. The music, if we define music to mean the right to legally listen to the work in private or with a small group of people, is worth buying. But will it be worth buying again in 2025, 2035, and 2050 because a file format or a streaming provider has changed? This is the billion dollar question, and one that may finally push the music industry out of the packaged goods business.

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