death of cd’s / rebirth of paying for music (drip.fm)

Part 1: CDs are dead

1999: the year I started college. That summer I ordered from the Apple store my very own computer (my mom paid for it obviously), one of the new all-in-one iMacs. When it arrived to my parents’ house I immediately installed and configured the operating system and hooked it up to my parents’ phone line to begin doing things. Configuring Netscape, I guess. Re-bookmarking my favorite sites. Probably some stuff with my AOL account. I think I downloaded some cool “computer graphics” artwork to set as my desktop picture. A The Matrix screensaver. During the installation process, Apple had walked me through the steps to configure it for a WLAN network, but I wouldn’t understand what that was until a few weeks later, when I moved into dorm and followed the IT helpdesk’s guide to getting connected. After successfully setting my (pink) computer up to run on the FASTEST INTERNET I HAD EVER EXPERIENCED, I quickly began to realize from friends, via AOL instant messenger and ICQ, that one of my life’s passions, music, was about to blow up in my face.

A new friend, an upperclassmen I had introduced myself to online in one of the Washington, D.C. rave forums over the summer, sent me a drum and bass song via chat. I started finding songs online to trade back to him, and to keep. Napster did not yet exist for Mac, not until the summer of 2000 I believe, but there existed actual webpages offering downloads, spyware- and ad-free. The MP3 Crackhouse was one that I went to a lot. My collection grew; especially after I figured out how to get the iMac onto the college’s Windows network, to access all the music which my PC-using colleagues were downloading and sharing.  I signed up for a show on the campus radio station, knowing that I would be able to offer amazing new music every single show, fresh off the internet. That Christmas I asked for a CD burner (decent hardware MP3 players weren’t yet available). At first I was converting all my MP3s to audio format to listen to on normal CD players, but by the end of my sophomore year, I was just using the discs to store the MP3s as data, having realized that I would never buy another CD player ever again.

My purchase of CD albums didn’t altogether stop, though, not right away. In 1999 a lot of MP3s were still kind of rough in quality, and even with Napster the infrastructure to find non-pop music wasn’t fully developed. That came with P2P networks like Oink, where you had to upload something good in order to be granted downloading privileges. So I kept buying CDs for a while. Music stores were still often good “curators;” Willie’s Records and Tapes (no website, sorry) in Richmond, Virginia still had tons of hiphop I wouldn’t have known about or been able to get if I relied solely on the internet. Plan 9 music, also in Richmond, and Other Music, in New York, had a lot of good compilations. I remember I went to London in 2002 and dropped about 200 GBP on electronic music compilations, all on CD. By 2003, however, I was only really buying second-hand CD’s. It was really starting to sink in that digital was more useful to me as software, and in 2006 I effected a vinyl-only policy for hardcopy music.

Part 2: it is an honor to pay for things that I value

In all this time I had, meanwhile, never purchased any digital music. MP3 Crackhouse gave way to Napster for Mac (Macster?) gave way to Soul Seek gave way to bitorrents. In 2007, blogs, supplemented by Soul Seek or bitorrents for special needs, had become my main music source, or DJ mixes. I was no longer stealing most of my music; I was being given it for free. RCRD LBL is a great service if you like their editorial taste, which posts free mp3s, paying artists with ad revenue. I was on their daily mailing list. I even contributed to a music blog for a while myself (emptyskeleton.blogspot.mx— it migrated to a Mexican domain after I left… they’re following me!), uploading music I was ripping from CD promos received via my community radio station, where I had a show. (I also started doing a weekly show showcasing music blogs!)

I did make one purchase, finally, in 2009. My friend’s band, Zombie Zombie, had released an EP that I had been unable to find for free download. And since I actually know them, and actually wanted to own the music, I bought it on Beatport for 5 bucks. It was worth it, of course, but that is really the only time I had been confronted with music that I wanted that I couldn’t easily get, without paying. (I have never used iTunes, by the way, for content. I consider it a pain in the ass.)

Until! Until… last month I signed up for drip.fm, the online music sales service started by the record label Ghostly International in May 2011. They, a favorite label of mine, have recruited other really good labels, such as Stones Throw, Domino, Morr Music, Dirty Bird to be part of the service. Customers like myself choose a label and pay a monthly subscription fee, set by the label, to receive whatever content the label wants to send them. I signed up for Morr Music, a label out of Germany featuring cerebral, non-dancy electronic music. They give me an album a week for $10 a month. It’s working out great. I have new music served to me, and what’s more I am thrilled to be buying music again! Really. Possibly because I know that 70% is going straight to the label, a good label that I like and who probably shares as much revenue as possible with their artists; Drip gets 30% for disribution. What I am not paying for is plastic, marketing and distro to Clear Channel Communications, or record store overhead.

Ghostly, the way they talk, seem to be taking Drip.fm as an experiment. I guess they don’t want to go too bold, considering all the flux around digital. But what I would like to see is them offering packages if I buy more than one label, for example. I could also see a music promotion service, the companies which send promos to radio stations and probably bloggers in exchange for airplay/publicity, doing something like Drip for regular listeners. There were several that served my radio stations that I would pay for: Spectre was one of my favorites, though now defunct, and Terrorbird… I would consider paying for their stuff. Forced Exposure is awesome– at the college station, I convinced them to start sending us promos, but I had to really differentiate us, our station, in their eyes in order to get them to. As a grown up, I would probably pay them $30 a month, for the quality and variety of stuff they carry.

My Morr Music/Drip.fm dashboard:


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