Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 3: March 2007

Old Media/New Media

Facing the Music

Will legal music downloads become real purchases—that is, with fair use and first-sale rights and without Digital Restrictions Management? Some of them already are (EMusic, for example) and it’s possible they’ll all go that way.

If that happens, I’m sure Steve Jobs will claim and get most of the credit. His recent call for the big labels to drop DRM is somewhat hypocritical, given that iTunes won’t sell DRM-free downloads from independent labels that don’t want DRM (and sell that way through EMusic) and that he absolutely refuses to level the playing field by licensing iTunes’ DRM to other stores and players. One of his points is pretty much on the money: Better than 90% of all music legally sold today is already DRM-free—because CDs outsell downloads by at least ten to one.

Eliot Van Buskirk offered seven reasons major labels might prefer MP3 (without DRM) in a January 8, 2007 Wired News column—before Jobs’ speech. His first reason may be right but the argument behind it is Wired hyperbole. The reason: “The labels don’t have a choice”—which boils down to them not being willing to let Steve Jobs monopolize distribution. That’s preceded by “When CD sales finally tank completely,” but there’s no real evidence that everyone wants to give up physical carriers (I sure don’t). If you’re Wired, digital is always better and everybody agrees, so it’s inevitable. Most clear-headed discussions of the drop in CD sales suggest that labels churning out mountains of repetitive crap has more to do with it than either legal downloads or a flight from CDs—except to the extent that buying single tracks lets you filter out most of the crap. (That section of Buskirk’s article notes EMusic is the second largest online music store “because it sells digital music rather than digital rights.” I know it’s the one I’d use right now if I was ready to buy downloads.)

His other reasons? Apple might be forced into interoperability (there are class action lawsuits asserting antitrust behavior). Thomson, which licenses one MP3 algorithm, is suggesting watermarked MP3s; I’m not sure that means much. There are rumors that Amazon plans to sell MP3s, which might mean more serious competition. One Sony Electronics official said DRM will become less important—but there’s a disconnect between Sony’s hardware side and Sony’s music-publishing side. “People love” (a Russian outfit that sells cheap and “questionably legal” MP3 downloads—but there’s really no way to pay for those downloads anymore). MP3 has future options—you can improve quality (already easy to do by lowering compression) and add surround sound. I’m not sure these all play out, but it would be nice to see part of Big Media begin to accept that DRM is more trouble than it’s worth.

Speaking of sound recordings, I ran into a silly piece from the January 14, 2007 Houston Press, “DISConnect” by John Nova Lomax. It’s a long piece, five pages of small single-spaced type. The tease: “Sales of CDs are falling faster than you can say iPod.” That’s nonsense—there’s continued erosion, but it’s not “faster and steeper every year” (as the article says). I’m curious as to why an EMI hotshot would say “The CD as it is right now is dead.” It’s certainly the bulk of EMI’s music revenue.

How bad is this article? It says worldwide CD sales are $6.45 billion, presumably meaning for the year 2005, since 2006 revenues wouldn’t be known that early—but U.S. CD sales alone were $10.5 billion in 2005, according to the RIAA, and it’s hard to believe that international sales amounted to “minus $4 billion.” It is true that the first half of 2006 was down sharply from the first half of 2005. It’s also true that 2004 sales were higher than 2003; “faster and steeper every year” is just wrong except on a one-year basis. The story also says $945 million worldwide for digital sales, or about one-seventh of CD sales—but U.S. 2005 figures were about $500 million in downloads, or about one-twentieth of CD sales, and even the first half of 2006 was $400 million downloads to $4.06 billion CDs, or about one-tenth of CD sales.

Lomax flatly says that CD sound isn’t better than vinyl and “most audiophiles argue that their sound is inferior,” which strikes me as a considerable overstatement. Later in the story, Lomax quotes a local musician as to why vinyl is better: it’s the crackle that makes it music! Lomax tells us the CD “really will be dead” within five years. I find that unlikely. As for the resurgence of vinyl, that one is amusing: According to RIAA, vinyl LPs sold $14.2 million in 2005 (about 0.14% of CD sales), and the combination of vinyl LPs, cassettes and CD singles amounted to $12.4 million in the first half of 2006 [the numbers are so small that RIAA doesn’t break them out for the first-half tables]. It does make you wonder about $90,000 turntables: Is it possible that most of vinyl’s “resurgence” is turntables, cartridges and preamps for a few thousand wealthy advocates, not LPs themselves?

There is some recognition of what’s really going on. “We really are awash in a sea of crap these days.” Maybe it’s because there’s too much music, it’s too easy to get and it doesn’t mean much to people as a result. Maybe it’s because “in any society, there are going to be a few truly talented musicians”—but almost anyone can get their music out these days, and that may not be a good thing. Certainly the mind-numbing playlists at commercial radio stations (and the dominance of commercial radio by a handful of companies) don’t help.

A strange article, mixing bad numbers, lots of nostalgia for the glory days of LPs, claims that we can’t concentrate long enough for whole songs or albums these days (quoting an absurd McLuhan maxim, “The future of the book is the blurb”—and the future of McLuhan was apparently sloganeering), a misreading of EMusic as being entirely a subscription service and claims that vinyl has “totally made a comeback” and “just sounds better than CD.”

Video Killed the TV Star?

Maybe not. YouTube and its competitors serve a variety of interesting, if mostly silly, purposes—but are you really going to replace NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, CW, HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central, PBS and the rest on your big-screen HDTV with the stuff and the video quality you get on YouTube?


Nope, didn’t think so. If you’ve tried expanding a typical YouTube or Google Video clip to full screen, you know how painful it can be.

Maybe you’ll go the other way—watch your TV shows on your mobile phone. Sure you will. When London researchers studied preferences of people with video-capable cell phones (as reported in New Media), they found people wanted to watch full-length programs “on their TVs at home.” As a researcher put it, “there aren’t enough viewing occasions on the go for long shows.” It’s also a matter of quality: “What looks great on widescreen TV looks disastrous on mobile. With sport, you can’t see the ball.” Mobile video content has to suit the small screen: not much detail, not much going on, not too long. Two to three minutes seems about right—and, supposedly, people will pay $1.70 or so for a good two or three minute clip. The strangest item in the study: About 40% of viewing video on a cell phone was at home.

Sean Captain wrote “Forget YouTube,” which appeared May 8, 2006 at Slate. He’s not saying YouTube is doomed. The key is the subhead: “Your laptop will never replace your TV.” By “never” he means “not for the next decade at least.” Partly that’s because the internet is a lousy high-def video distribution network: There’s just not enough bandwidth and packet transmission isn’t the way to assure smooth high-def video. “Today’s Web video looks rather good because we see it on very small screens”—but most of it doesn’t even reach VHS quality. “ABC’s 700-by-394 pixel videos may look decent in a small window on a laptop but will likely be unwatchable on a 1280-by-768 pixel, 50-inch plasma TV.” The hallmark these days is a 1920x1080 pixel screen, to be sure. I’ll admit I was surprised at how good one TV show (we’d missed an episode) actually looked on my 19” Sony LCD monitor—but it wasn’t VHS quality and would have been barely adequate on our 32” [SD]TV.

Clay Shirky doesn’t see it that way. In a January 3, 2007 Many2Many post, he asserts that Mark Cuban (a successful impresario of HD broadcasting) “doesn’t understand television” when he says that internet video isn’t going to replace HDTV. Cuban overstated the reverse case—or maybe he didn’t. “HDTV is the Internet video killer” may be right in terms of anything more than short videos although it’s wrong in terms of doing away with web video entirely. Shirky draws the analogy of audiophiles saying “MP3s won’t catch on”—curiously, by quoting a paragraph that says nothing of the sort. (The writer noted that MP3 sound quality for downloads was still radio quality, and until that changes he wasn’t all that interested.) Shirky’s snarky analysis of that non-statement seems to assume that MP3s have taken over—even though CDs still outsell them more than ten to one.

For Shirky, it’s simple. Since the form of a video and its method of delivery can be separated, “they will be, because users prefer it that way.” We all think like Clay Shirky. And, of course, “People like to watch, but they also like to create, and to share.” True, although most people who watch don’t want to create—and it’s also true that there’s no conflict between the two. Do people who create three-minute videos on YouTube stop watching Lost and Desperate Housewives and Bones? Why would they?

Shirky seems to think people don’t give a damn about video quality, that people “don’t optimize, they satisfice.” Apparently YouTube is the “proof” that internet video is good enough. His conclusion: “YouTube is the HDTV killer. Count on it.” I’m amazed Shirky is so confident he knows more about HDTV than someone who actually runs HDTV services. I guess theory beats practice every time.

The comment stream was interesting. Mark Cuban was first, noting that “people will take the path of least resistance. They always do.” Today, getting HD programming may be a slight nuisance—but that will change. Meanwhile, even getting internet video to the TV is a much bigger nuisance. Most of us don’t want our PCs to be in our living rooms. Cuban notes something I suspect is true: Most internet video is watched during office hours. Cuban also notes that people creating their own music hasn’t resulted in a profusion of successful sites; by and large, “no one cares.”

Another commenter notes that, “everything being equal—higher fidelity always wins,” but everything isn’t equal. Another makes the obvious point that it isn’t either/or, it’s both: HDTV really isn’t going away (Shirky’s wrong), and Internet video isn’t completely going away (Cuban’s wrong). One commenter claims it’s been “proven in spades” that “quantity of choice beats quality by a mile” and that breaking TV shows down into little pieces makes them “so much more compelling.” That commenter seems to think that “people” (most? all?) already prefer web video to TV. I don’t think the numbers bear that out or are likely to.

Media Life for February 8, 2007 does the unthinkable in this regard: It looks at research studies (in a story by Kevin Downey). Two studies considered here show that “the online video craze isn’t nearly as big as it sometimes seems. And more significant to advertisers, it’s having no effect on TV viewing.” The reporter gets it right: “online video will be yet another media option.” Online video is “about a minority of people doing it a lot”—maybe 4% of adults spending an hour a day with online video, compared with 93% of adults watching TV at least an hour a day. “That is not mass at this point. Usage is increasing but the user base isn’t increasing much.” That sounds right. I might click on one video link in a blog, but I won’t go clicking beyond that—after about seven minutes, it gets old. I can see that some people would find it fascinating and continue exploring for quite a while—quite possibly while they’re supposed to be doing some white-collar job. The Media Life story (note that Media Life is new media—an emagazine) gets it right about new media “versus” old media in general:

The concerns that online video will negatively affect TV viewing are reminiscent of fears raised over the past few decades about each new medium that came along.

It’s almost always the case that consumers simply squeeze in time for new media in addition to their usage of existing media.

Or, if Mark Cuban is right about web video, it requires “multitasking” at work rather than cutting down on home TV consumption.

Oh, about the disastrous state of daily newspapers? Turns out the numbers aren’t quite what they seem—but that’s a discussion for another issue.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 3, Whole Issue 87, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

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