Why music on mobile phones is not music

The music industry is in a pickle. CD sales are falling, big-name artists are signing with touring companies. Independent artists are having a go on their own. The solution, the industry thinks, is to sell its music through mobile phones.

They are dead wrong. Here’s why.

Mobile phone users don’t use music in the same way that music listeners do. Music listeners — whether at home or on the go with their iPod — are listening to what the artist has created. Even “digital” forms of the music are still relatively analogue because the listener cannot slice and dice the music into a new mashup. The best she can do is skip a track (which she has done since the times of vinyl).

Music on mobile phones has both “listening” and impression management behaviors. Mobile phone users use music more often to present a version of themselves to the public world than they do to actually “listen.”

Music on mobile phones has truly become what Nicholas Negroponte calls “co-mingling bits.” Mobile phone operators have already sliced and diced the music into snippets for its users to use in various ways. The ringtone is one version. The “ringback,” which a caller hears when he’s waiting for his friend to answer her phone, is another version.

Now mobile phone users can download all sorts of “co-mingling bits” off the Web. Some of these bits happen to be musical. Some of them are unrecognizable from what the artist originally intended.

This kind of behavior is not listening to music; it is impression management. What is the effect, for example, when your friend hears Paranoid while he waits for you to pick up the phone? What is the effect if it were I Can Hear You Breathe?

Music companies think  this new form of music consumption can save the industry. They hope that album sales will be replaced with mobile phone downloads of full tracks. They are wrong.

Consider the following numbers from eMarketer.

Full track downloads as percentage of ringback and ringtone downloads:
2006: 23%
2007: 33%
2008: 47%

While the share is growing, it is certainly not replacing album sales. Artists should recognize that mobile phone music is not “music” but the public adornment of their art. And music companies should recognize that mobile phones will not save a bloated and dying industry.

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3 responses to “Why music on mobile phones is not music

  1. Pingback: how to download free mp3 music

  2. “While the share is growing, it is certainly not replacing album sales.”

    Trending suggests otherwise? You also have to consider the rising uptake of smartphones eg. iPhone and its impact it would have on music listening habits.

  3. Pingback: The difference between analogue and digital Part I: Text « Design Research

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