[this piece appeared on Dilettante on 18 September]

With the music industry endlessly gnashing its teeth over the existential threat posed by digital piracy, the Messiah phenomenon has become common. You know: the start-up du jour that’s going to ‘revolutionise’ the way we listen to music. While record industry lawyers chase teenagers who love bands so much they feel comfy ‘borrowing’ their music and ‘sharing’ it with their friends, Silicon Valley and its clones churn out new models aimed at monetising some element of the music-making process, since its consumers have apparently divested the tunes of any inherent value.

The latest of these digital revolutionaries is Spotify whose magical revenue model has turned out to be a wizened Oz, cowering behind a sparkly curtain. Souping up an old-fashioned private radio model, where music is punctuated by ads, the company uses new technology to force listeners to hear a promo for the latest Mika track, which suddenly screeches at them between movements of a Schumann work. Mute the ad and it stops playing, then promptly resumes when you turn the volume back up. This is aimed at, er, ‘encouraging’ listeners to subscribe to the company’s ad-free paid streaming service.

That the latest ground-breaking start-up is now scrambling to shore up its revenue model is no surprise. More frequent and louder ads signal that Spotify has figured out what maths and logic dictated all along: making music requires resources, which need to be paid for. It follows that people only pay for things they value, which might be why The Times speculates that of Spotify’s 2.5-million UK users fewer than 10,000 are paid subscribers.

It might also be why one of Spotify’s recent listener comments came from a young woman complaining that it’s ‘unfair’ that she has to listen to ads on the free service. Evidently, for some listeners free music is a natural right and Spotify thinks the only way to convince them otherwise is to haul out a very big stick. And that’s a separate issue from whether the old-fashioned record industry model of bundling a bunch of B-side pop songs with a couple of singles and calling it an ‘album’ makes sense in a digital age.

Indeed, we’ll be interested to see how Spotify’s iPhone app, which launched last week, fares. Offering a paid-only service, it seems that the Swedish start-up is banking on the ‘value-add’ of mobile listening proving more enticing than ad-free music, with more users willing to pay for it.

Whether it’s lawyers chasing teenagers, music services shoving ads down listeners’ throats or a constant hunt for other sources of value, these responses to the digital Wild West take a single belief for granted: namely, that listeners no longer rate music itself, precisely because it’s intangible. After all, the prevalence of digital piracy shows that people who’d never consider stuffing a CD into their rucksack and legging it out of HMV, figure ‘sharing’ an mp3 through Lime Wire isn’t so bad…is it? In other words, the value of music has declined both because it’s easy to steal and because the digital environment makes common thievery seem less appalling than it actually is.

We’re not entirely convinced by these arguments. Sure, we all probably know someone who’s downloaded the odd file or two through a file sharing site. Heck, according to the rights enforcers in the UK, listening to music on your computer at work where someone else might hear the odd note requires a license and attendant royalty payments, which surely makes unwitting thieves of lots of us [Ed: pause to put a hand up …]

In fact, we’d argue that it’s partly this harsh and unreasonable enforcement regime that’s become the enemy of music sales. One look at the widespread support for convicted digital pirate Joel Tenenbaum suggests that users who think it’s ok to steal music do so because they’re convinced that they’re ‘sticking it to the man’. According to Joel Fights Back, Tenanbaum’s website, ‘[i]t’s not a vendetta. It’s just that Joel chose to stand his ground. It’s about defending the average Davids against the corporate Goliath.’ You know, kind of like Steal This Book, Abbie Hoffman’s 1970 call to arms aimed at galvanising readers to challenge the status quo.

In reality, though, it’s not ‘the man’ who’s getting ‘stuck’; it’s the musicians, including many who aren’t in the league of Coldplay, earning tens of millions of dollars a year and marrying American movie stars. Most are jobbing players who love it so much they’re trying to make a living by it. They’re the ones who are really getting stuck because record labels are still willing to throw resources behind big acts. What they’re increasingly less willing to do is take a risk on much of anything at all.

So while the record labels’ model might have been obsolete anyways, all of this makes us think that if their strategy had been driven by a clear sense of their key asset – namely, that they’re selling something people feel passionately about – rather than a lawyer’s parsing of the precedents of intellectual property, things might have been different. After all, Joel Tenenbaum wouldn’t work for free, so why should the musicians he professes to love? David, indeed.