Earlier this month, Napster began a billboard campaign making a virtue of its greatest shortcoming: that you don't get to keep any music. If you rent music from Napster, the music disappears when the relationship ends. If you want your music to last for life, you need a lifetime subscription to Napster.
Several other companies offer similar services. What they're really selling is a proprietary subscription radio service with a little time-shifting, and a little customization. Not a lot of customization because with a choice limited to a mere million songs there are sure to be a lots of tunes you can't hear, that you might want. And not a lot of time-shifting, either. But at the end of the day, you still have nothing to show for it.
Here's how Napster is selling it, with this very striking poster.
Napster's new ad campaign
Now what do we do when with things-with-rights-attached cease being physical objects, and copying them becomes as easy as breathing?
Ah, that's easy. Either we find a way of making the digital objects gain the awkwardness of physical matter - so copying them is a nuisance - or we find another way of paying for them.
Napster's experiment takes the first route, replicating physical nuisance in digital form, thanks to the magic of DRM. But it's also a subtle attempt to persuade us that there never was a physical form in the first place. A slightly creepy experience.
There is a third choice, which is that physical objects gain a new lease of life, which is precisely what's happening at the moment: the CD, so recently marked for imminent death, looks set to continue for a long time to come.
What also makes this campaign peculiar is that it makes the act of acquisition the real thrill. Anyone old enough to remember taking home a precious seven-inch single, fit to burst with anticipation, will know that acquisition can indeed be an experience that never leaves you. The banality of the digital world guarantees we that we lose this. But there's also another kind of acquisition that digital media encourages which is more akin to collecting. Readers have remarked before how some digital technology mavens merely acquire, and never seem to listen to what they hoard. In the physical world, record collectors and cataloguers were the exception, but now they're everywhere!
Another odd thought is that it's using the language of Marx to describe this rum deal, where you get less for more inconvenience and money. But Marx it was who famously said, "everything solid melts into air" ... the most appropriate way of thinking about this evaporation of value.
What do you make of it? ®