Trying before buying

The music industry really needs to realize that if they don’t start letting people try before they buy, give a little to get a lot back, people are just going to start taking. Case in point, everyone’s favorite topic: file-sharing. Now, some companies have tried to appease the file-sharing masses somewhat by offering music through services like iTunes, but that model relies on the idea that a) customers want to buy songs one at a time or b) customers want to buy albums, but without having to buy the physical media.

However, as much of a technocrat as I might be, I do see the value in physical media. With physical media, you get liner notes, album cover art, and preservation of presentation– the artist usually chooses a particular order in which songs appear on the album and there’s a reason for that. It will be a long time before all of these things become useless to the public (perhaps never) AND it will be a long time before the entire music buying public jumps onto the digital music bandwagon. The music industry needs to embrace digital music, file-sharing and everything they have to offer, but it also needs to come up with a workable hybrid model that marries the benefits of both the digital music world and the hard media world.

I’m not so arrogant to believe that I’m the only one who ever came up with this very general, non-constructive suggestion, but I was once again reminded of this challenge as I was listening to music in my car via my trusty iPod. To be honest, I only buy CDs when I KNOW I am going to like almost all of the songs on an album AND I have some type of long-term interest in the artist. So, even if I liked all the songs on the newest pop star’s album, I wouldn’t buy it unless I believed that the artist looked like s/he would a) make it past the latest episode of MTV’s TRL and b) I would keep listening and enjoying his/her music when s/he does. Unfortunately, this leaves me with owning and buying CDs by a very small number of artists that I started listening to before the digital music explosion and that luckily, I was able to discover, try out and come to love. It also leaves me with a few random CDs from artists that never made it past their first or second album or that I couldn’t stand to listen to after their first or second album.

Today, I add artists to that privileged list for which I actually buy CDs by trying before buying. Unfortunately, online music stores rarely offer more than very short clips of a few songs on a particular CD and I don’t have the time to sit there in the brick-and-mortar music store and listen to the whole CD (if I were lucky enough for the CD I want to buy to be in the listening kiosk). In fact, even if I did have the time, listening to just one CD isn’t enough, which is why I have random CDs lying around in my collection (which I will refrain from naming here). I want to listen to many CDs, listen to a “Best of” type compilation of a particular artist before I decide whether I’m going to sign on as a member of his fan club and start doling out my hard-earned money on some music, digital or otherwise.

Realistically, given today’s music sales model, the only way to really do this (without spending money) is a) listen to your friend’s CDs or b) download some digital music. The music industry needs to admit that trying before buying, not free music for everyone, is the model they are being pushed towards and the sooner they realize that and stop trying to punish their customers for pushing them, the sooner everyone will stop villifying them. The music industry should take a tip from drug dealers. If the music industry would just come through on the trying part, the public will come through on the buying part, but not before then.

Addendum: all of the above also holds true for the television industry. If I wanted to start watching a television show that had already been on for several seasons, I would want to catch up with all the previous seasons’ episodes. Considering the painfully slow speed with which television shows are, if ever, released on DVD or video, downloading them online is an increasingly popular option. However, if I’m not allowed to download them online (perhaps because of anti-copying locks on television broadcasts), I frankly will be less likely to start watching a show other than from the beginning. The television industry needs to come up with a new ad/commercial model to make television-on-demand a viable option because at it’s core, it’s a try before you buy model.