Ownership is Dead

During my teens, when music was at an apex of importance in my life, I stumbled across two large boxes full of albums in the back of my closet. Of course I was curious and began shuffling through them. Most album covers were in good shape, while others had seen better days. Their design and colors drew me in to the point I had to inspect each one.

It didn’t take long to realize that I’d discovered my father’s album stash. It was his playlist before the playlist had been invented. I began flipping through the boxes to see if I recognized any of the bands. Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles were well represented as was Three Dog Night, you know, the one with Out in the Country.

But most of the albums came from bands I’d never heard of before. I kept flipping through them until I got to the final few, and then I saw it. The Doors eponymous first album, often regarded as their finest achievement and one of the best classic rock albums of all time. My father must have stashed it near the back, hoping my mother wouldn’t find it because she thought Jim Morrison was disgusting.

Looking through those albums gave me insight into a side of my father that was new to me. If music provided a way a connecting generations this was one such example. I was just beginning to listen to rock and roll, and didn’t particularly like the Doors. But I enjoyed a lot of music from that period, and learning that my father’s taste in music didn’t deviate far from my own, made him a bit more approachable.

It’s hard to imagine a similar scenario playing out today between me and my son given the degree to which the music landscape has changed.

Albums gave way to cassette tapes and then to CDs which have been in decline for several years now. Gone are the creative album covers and sleeves often covered in lyrics. The trips to the music store to thumb through section after section, in search of something new are history. Even the scent of a newly opened album is a distant memory.

The physical media has given way to the digital. Sharing music today requires little more than linking a friend to Spotify or YouTube. It’s not unlike SPAM; it’s almost too easy to do. The friction is gone, replaced by a shared video on my Facebook wall demanding I listen to the latest American Idol flavor of the month.

While in high school, a friend showed up at my locker, placed two albums in my hands, and beckoned me to listen to them from start to finish. That night I went home and listened to both sides of “The Wall” and “Dark Side of the Moon”.  If my friend was willing to give up two of his favorite albums for a week, I had to give them a try. Of course, I was hooked.

Having a huge swath of all recorded music just a Spotify search away is mind numbing. For a few bucks each month, I’m able to sample music from every possible genre, not just classic rock. That’s worth something. But it’s almost too much. Like trying to drink from a fire hose.

I’m afraid ownership is dead. Blockbuster was decimated by Netflix and music stores all but gone, unless you count the few rows of Top 40 CDs you’ll find at Walmart or Best Buy. The idea of buying a DVD feels as out of fashion as creating a mixtape for your girlfriend.  I was in denial initially, telling myself the Pixar and Disney films were too good not to own. But the frustration of those unskippable FBI warnings and trailers and cases that are designed to encourage my children to break the disk upon removal were enough for me to kiss DVD ownership goodbye.

Software is following a similar trend with companies like Salesforce and 37 Signals touting the advantages of software rental. Gaming isn’t immune to the trend either with a number of companies like Gamefly and Gamerang offering games on DVD or download for rent. The days of spending 15 minutes to patch your game could be over soon. Hallelujah!

Even Adobe is betting that you’ll forgo ownership of their most popular applications, such as Photoshop, in exchange for access to the latest versions tucked into their private cloud. Pony up the monthly fee and you get it all. Of course, Adobe wins as well with a more predictable revenue model and significant decrease in pirated products.

That brings us back to music where nostalgia is losing out to convenience . And convenience means letting someone else manage your collection of music, video, and software. You don’t have to like it. A few hard-core album hipsters appear to be enough to keep a handful of record stores around. But it’s not a winnable battle. Digital subscriptions are here to stay and ownership is dead. 

This is, unless you're lucky enough to stumble upon someone's music stash.