Chuck Klosterman Gets It: People Are Broke, Illegal Downloading Is Easy

Apr 8th, 2008 // 22 Comments

AP060711030373.jpg With complex theories endlessly bandied about and “vinyl is back!” prayers going unanswered everywhere, leave it to Chuck Klosterman to drop a common-sense take on the decline of the music industry. It’s not about poor product, or poor corporate structuring. People just don’t want to spend money on stuff they can get for free. “Because four-minute digital-song files are relatively small (and thus easily compressed), ripping tracks for free became the easiest way to eliminate an extraneous cost. It wasn’t political or countercultural, and it had almost nothing to do with music itself. It was fiscally practical. It was the first, best solution.”

It would seem there are two elementary reasons why the decline in revenue happened: a) illegal file-sharing and b) heightened consumer selectivity. File-sharing has been written about extensively, so there is no need to readdress it here. The term “heightened consumer selectivity” is really just a manifestation of iTunes — if someone is obsessed with the song “1 2 3 4″ but has no interest in the Feist catalog, he can acquire the single for ninety-nine cents instead of blowing sixteen dollars on a full album he’d never play twice. But here’s where the math gets less clear and more meaningful: These trends don’t involve everyone. Your grandma is not using LimeWire. The 2.6 million people who love the Eagles are still going to Wal-Mart to buy the physical CD. In practice, it’s only a select class of computer-savvy consumers who are making this dramatic revenue shift happen — almost exclusively music fans under the age of forty who a) used to buy a few albums every other Tuesday but b) now buy virtually none over the course of an entire year.

…People didn’t stop buying albums because they were philosophically opposed to how the rock business operated, and they didn’t stop buying albums because the Internet is changing the relationship between capitalism and art. People stopped buying albums because they wanted the fucking money. It’s complicated, but it’s not.

While he does get lost on a tangent about college credit card purchases in the early ’90s–can’t expect a man who named a book about the summer he almost had sex with three women Killing Yourself To Live to get his head entirely out of his ass–the piece is refreshingly shrewd about how much the fall in CD sales has to do with its ease and the average computer-literate young person’s desire to free up some discretionary income. I’m still going to yell “and you wonder why music sales are going down?” during next MTV Video Music Awards, though.

Anyone seen my $4.2 billion? [Esquire]

  1. Chris N.

    How does this explain bottled water?

  2. BakerStreetSaxSolo

    people aren’t broke – they just decide to prioritise their spending elsewhere. Like, on jacked-up gig tickets, or more beer.

  3. Julio Allison

    Capitalism can be a bitch, huh?

  4. Julio Allison

    @Chris N.:

    Tap water came first. It’s the reverse.

  5. Jasonbob7

    A huge but often overlooked element of the decline in music revenue is the proliferation of other forms of entertainment. Personally, I see video games as the biggest culprit. Games cost 2 – 3 times as much as an album (and game systems cost at least as much as an iPod), but somehow the gaming industry is growing by leaps and bounds. Millions of people are spending their time and money on Guitar Hero or World of Warcraft instead of music. And these kids/teens/twentysomethings want to be entertained by an interactive, immersive experience – simply listening to and appreciating an album just won’t cut it. Sad state of affairs, indeed.

  6. MTS

    So basically he wrote all that stuff to say, “It’s the economy, stupid”? Man, I need to get in on this journalism thing — seems like a way to easy cheese.

  7. bg5000

    @Jasonbob7: I’m not convinced that the rise of video games is keeping people from listening to music. I know a bunch of people who play a lot of video games but also listen to a lot of music. It’s just that there’s an option for getting music for free in the way there isn’t for video games. If there was a Soulseek/Limewire equivalent for Xbox games that was as easy to use as it’s musical counterpart (emphasis on easy), i think the video game industry might not be riding so high these days.

  8. King of Pants

    Why do people download music?

    Because they can.

  9. Whigged

    I know it’s tough to stay on top of all the drivel that comes across as music commentary, but didn’t this issue of Esquire come out like, two weeks ago? I know the website says April 7th – but that Clooney cover one has been out for awhile.

  10. Jasonbob7

    @bg5000: I agree that it’s not a zero-sum game, but I do think the rise of other entertainment media (especially videogames) gives people more choices and stretches discretionary income thinner. Hence, they have less cash to spend on music, so if they can get it for free, they will. If games could be easily ripped and shared online, you bet there’d be crazy piracy. But they can’t, and probably won’t (not in significant amounts) for a number of reasons.

  11. okiedoke

    Was there a chapter about sticking it to The Man?

  12. beta.rogan

    I actually think he’s got something on that credit card debt bit.

  13. Lax Danja House

    The credit card bit is going a bit far, but the basic point that not buying music is an easy way to skimp on discretionary spending is spot on in my opinion.

  14. Chris N.

    Personally, a lot of money I would have spent on music now goes to DVDs — including, I would note, a lot of music DVDs.

    As a for-instance, I got the Police’s greatest-hits DVD, featuring all the songs in surround sound, for less than the equivalent CD would have cost. Why would I want it in stereo, without the pictures and extras?

  15. scott pgwp

    I’m not seeing the genius of Klosterman here. People fileshare because it’s an “easy way to eliminate an extranneous cost” – yeah, no shit!

    He goes on to make possibly the most ludicrous, boneheaded leap in logic I’ve seen in print in a long time with this whole line of thought on credit card debt. Kids are actually being totally level-headed and are responsibly paying down their credit card debt while reigning in their discretionary spending! Okay, thanks for the evidence on that. “I looked at one graph, then I looked at another one, and decided since they were both pie-shaped they must be related!”

    Freakonomics this ain’t. Ugh – it’s maddeningly idiotic!

  16. Rabi

    “my specific theory is this: A lot of the money not spent on music in the twenty-first century is being used to pay off credit-card debt that was incurred during the nineties.”

    Once again Klosterman draws from his well, 1990′s pop culture, to write about a 21st Century issue. What’s going to happen in 2050? Will the climate crisis be connected to Season 2 of “The Real World”?

  17. Anonymous

    Has anyone considered the possibility that people are actually listening to less music, because there are so many other things to do to keep yourself entertained (like watch YouTube videos, surf the net, IM your friends, watch Netflix movies etc)?

    By the way, I’m doing a survey on digital music for a class at MIT. I’m giving $5 free credit on Amie Street to anyone who fills it. Check it out at: [www.surveymonkey.com]

  18. HUGE_Hefner

    I usually enjoy Klosterman, but the theory about the credit card debt is kind of ridiculous. The not-spending-money-in-something-you-can-get-for-free works, but we already knew that.

    Also, pirating videogames is not that hard. And DVDs are almost as easy as CDs, are they not?

    Other industries have to deal with piracy everyday too, but their products have a more appropriate price.

  19. katekate is squared

    Part of the reason I don’t buy CDs anymore is because I don’t have any place for them. I already have too many, and if I can get an album for $9.99 on iTunes instead of $15.99 in the record store, I’m gonna do it. This just reinforces my original notion that Chuck Klosterman is kind of oblivious to modern culture.

  20. Nedpoleon

    Nobody tell Cory Doctorow.

  21. HUGE_Hefner

    I just had to come back here to clarify.

    I don´t think the price of CDs is the only reason for the debacle of the music industry, there are a variety of factors, most of them already mentioned by you all. We can even include the credit card debt as one, just to humor Klosterman.

    But the specific point I want to make is this: nowdays recording an album is a lot cheaper that in the old days. The same can be said about promotion, distribution, production of the CDs, the finding of new acts (via My Space instead of going to clubs) and almost everything the music industry does.

    So why are the CDs so expensive?

    An Idolator post about Chinese Democracy said it has a 15 million dollar price tag, and that guy Micco pointed out that´s what Hollywood spends in a 3 second scene with Nicolas Cage. And that’s true. And the DVD of that movie costs two dollars more than the soundtrack, and it includes all kinds of bonus material. It’s ridiculous.

    A song for 99cents in ITunes is completely outrageous.

    Music has to be cheaper in order to compete.

  22. Você é uma pessoa muito inteligente!

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