Saturday, May 31, 2008

Questions I've been pondering costs and music edition

Over beers last night, we got to talking about the evolution of music delivery-- records, 8-tracks, cassette tapes, compact discs and now the digital age. Recent in my mind was a page on one-hit wonders, and I got to thinking:

Many people say that music consumers now appreciate single songs more than entire albums, and that this is a trend that didn't start recently. Could it be that the popular method of music delivery might be playing a role? On an 8-track or cassette tape, it is relatively costly to search and find a particular song; you have to wait through the time needed to fast forward or rewind to where you needed to be on the tape, and relative to the length of the song, it is definitely nontrivial. (I had a friend in elementary school whose rewind button didn't work, and when he wanted a repeat listening of "Mr. Brownstone," would have to fast forward through the remainder of Side A, flip the tape, fast forward through the entirety of Side B, flip the tape again, then fast forward to the beginning of the song-- and hope not to overshoot.) Consuming albums relative to individual songs may be the cost minimizing way to intake music.

Of course, the advent of the compact disc made the cost of finding a particular song almost zero. If people all along truly want to listen to just their favorite songs, then this shock downwards in the cost of doing so may be enough for people to stop listening to entire albums and just focus on their favorite songs. Recognizing this, bands can move away from supplying albums to supplying songs, meant to be searched directly to. Of course, the MP3 player reduces the cost even more-- with CDs, you would want a disc with a lot of good songs (remember the popularity of burning your own CDs with your favorite songs?), since changing to a different disc is relatively costly. Now, individuals effectively have one huge CD that never needs to be changed-- and search costs are still very low.

It's not that costs of selecting songs have always dropped; my experience is limited, but finding a particular track on a vinyl record is relatively less costly than on a cassette. (Which is probably why radio stations never went with tapes.) Cassettes, of course, eventually won the war due to portability.

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