Back in the dark ages of music reproduction, when state-of-the-art was a plastic box called a cassette tape, yours truly worked for a few summers between college semesters at an audiovisual repair shop.
Most of my time there, I spent in the back room trying to fix recalcitrant tape recorders and players, but once in a while we were short-handed and I actually had to deal with a customer. One guy I remember in particular. He had brought in a strange-looking cassette player shaped and colored more or less like a volleyball, and its guts were not cooperating with my attempts to fix it.
One day he stopped in and demanded to see the guy who was actually working on his unit. I came out to the front counter and tried to explain the problem to him. He listened patiently, and then all he said was, “Man, I gotta have my music.”
Multiply him by the seven billion or so people on this planet, and you can realize some of the consequences of the fact that music is a universal feature of human culture, and the scale of money to be made by whoever provides music to these masses. Before mechanical sound reproduction was possible, this was by necessity a retail operation. Either you made music yourself, which is still the main way to hear music in many parts of the Global South, or you supported a few specialists called musicians, who could entertain as many people at once as could hear the sounds they made — a few thousand at a time at most.
Then came the phonograph, radio, magnetic recording, digital audio, the iPod, and most recently, according to Wired.com, Google and Apple’s attempts to dominate the global supply of streaming music to smartphones.
Wired reporter Matt Honan admits that music is now a commodity, like gasoline or pork bellies. The important thing about a commodity is the bulk price that the distributors pay to the suppliers, which Apple reportedly offered to set at six cents per 100 songs streamed. If Apple prevailed, that would mean for every song streamed to an individual listener, the entity formerly known as the record label would receive six ten-thousandths of a dollar.
Just a few years ago, when 45-RPM discs were still being sold, royalties might have amounted to as much as a tenth of the cost of a record, say maybe sixty cents. Of course, you could listen to a record over and over again, but the same is often true of streaming audio. The point here is that the cash return to the label for each listen has diminished almost to the vanishing point.
It is not clear that Apple’s low bid will win out, but something close to it probably will. And in the nature of digital distribution, we will probably end up with one major worldwide supplier of music to the masses, just as Google is the major supplier of search-engine technology. Is this a bad thing?
It depends on what you think music is for. Many people I know, especially younger ones, but even including my wife (who turns 57 next Tuesday), view music as a sort of background accessory to their lives, like certain styles of clothing. The music they listen (or listened) to in their 20s and 30s becomes a part of them, and they select it to accompany or even induce certain moods of relaxation, pleasure, and so on. For many people, like the gentleman I waited on at the repair shop, life without music is unimaginable, and it forms a continuous undertone to their lives at work and home.
If this is all that music means to you, then it doesn’t matter that much who supplies it, just as the name of your electric utility company probably doesn’t matter to you as long as the price is reasonable and the delivery is reliable. That’s what dealers in commodities do: deliver the goods reliably at a reasonable price.
But if you believe music is the most direct path to one’s emotions, in a manner of speaking a direct line to the soul, and can represent the abstraction called beauty, which is one of the “three roads to God” (the other two being truth and goodness) — well, then, the matter becomes a little more serious.
While it is unlikely that Google, Apple, or whoever ends up in charge will discriminate against particular styles of music if such discrimination reduces the bottom line, we can expect censorship to become an issue, especially in countries or regions where restrictive regimes hold power.
In the past, revolutionaries and freedom fighters have used music to great advantage. In the classic World War II film Casablanca, no one can forget the stirring cafe scene in which a group of German soldiers singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” are drowned out by the French patriots singing “La Marseillaise.”
Say Google becomes the music supplier of choice in China, and the government decides that anything with religious or political overtones is not allowed? Google and Yahoo and other high-tech firms have already kowtowed to the demands of governments for censorship with regard to search-engine results, and why should songs be any different?
Fortunately, anyone with a pair of lungs and vocal cords can make some kind of music or other. And even now, in secret house churches, in African villages, and anywhere two or more people decide to sing together, the mysterious thing called music is doing its work in putting human beings in touch with the transcendent. And we don’t need Apple’s or Google’s help with that.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog,Engineering Ethics.