The Importance of Music Ownership

AvatarMarc HenshallCulture & Industry3 Comments

If you own your own home, do you not take better care of it? Do you take more pride in your surroundings, perhaps invest more money in maintaining it?

If you own something, you have a stake in it. As Martin Luther King JR said, “There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a large segment of people in that society who feel that they have no stake in it; who feel that they have nothing to lose. People who have a stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don’t have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it.”

…And that, I would argue, is what we’re unconsciously doing to music – we’re slowly, but surely destroying the value of music by removing the consumer’s stake in any collective music culture.

It is my belief that ownership of music in a physical form is as essential to music culture as home ownership is to society. In an age where home ownership is becoming increasingly difficult for young generations to achieve, this may stir up some controversy, but I really do believe that music matters more when we own it.

Speaking from personal experience, I can vouch for how much less important my music collection seemed when I moved back from Canada to the UK ten years ago with nothing more than my laptop, complete with the obligatory iTunes library. Albums that I had loved for years were reduced to meaningless data on my hard drive. There’s a great quote in a Guardian article by Sophie Heawood that I keep returning to on this topic, where she describes her experience of selling off all her music and going digital, claiming that, “Streaming music has made it so dull I’ve lost all interest in it”.

I dare say I lost all interest for a while too, and it wasn’t just the loss of a physical copy, either. It was also that it made it all too easy for music to become a wallpaper backdrop to whatever I was doing on my laptop – be it typing articles or mindlessly scrolling through social media. Without even realizing it, I’d stopped paying attention altogether.

Quite simply, we value the things we own. In psychology, this behavior is referred to as the “Endowment effect”, which is the belief that people ascribe more value to things as soon as they own them. Our attachment to physical items starts early in life; the idea that we can own “a thing” like an extension of ourselves is one that children grasp by the age of two. And by six, they exhibit the ‘Endowment effect’. The following video clip summarizes this behavior very well.

As the video describes, from a young age, we believe the objects we own have a unique essence. In the world of music and records, if I were to offer an exact copy of your favorite record, the chances are you would still feel attached to your original copy.

In our digital realm, we see further evidence that we perceive physical items as worth more than their digital counterparts. For example, in a recent Journal of Consumer Research study, hundreds of American’s were asked to say what they were willing to pay for either physical or digital versions of the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and physical or digital versions of the movie Dark Knight. The participants placed a higher value on the physical copies, and this seemed to be because they expected to have a stronger sense of ownership. For the physical copy, they agreed more strongly with statements like “I will feel like I own it”.

The birth and growth of modern streaming services, of course, detaches us even further. Music is increasingly rented, not owned – not even digitally owned. The impact of this transition, I would argue, is significant. If everything we know about the psychology of ownership is true, it is doubtful that modern music consumers are placing the same importance on music as perhaps they once did.

In the interest of balance, streaming services bring many positives for music discovery. Some might argue that music is more accessible than ever, and this transition is something to celebrate. There is merit to this argument. We live in a digital age, why shouldn’t we benefit?

The short answer is, we should benefit. Go-ahead. Who am I to dictate how people should or shouldn’t listen to music? My argument is simply that what we have gained through convenience, we have lost in the experience. Subsequently, music is worth less to us than it used to, and we should be concerned about that. It’s a big part of why I started Sound Matters.

Fortunately, as alluded to at the end of the video summary earlier, I think there will always be something uniquely satisfying about holding an object in our hands and calling it our own. Since the rise of digital music, experts have often predicted the demise of physical vinyl and CD copies, but this just hasn’t happened.

Vinyl sales, particularly, have surprised almost everyone and the figures are well documented. What’s fascinating, is that while streaming services account for 65% of the US market, vinyl and CD sales are now out-selling digital downloads according to last year’s report published by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). These figures appear to back up the theory that by human nature, we still have a desire to own music. And when we do, we prefer to own it physically. Physical album sales sneak into second place in the market (making up 17%), and within that slice of the market, Vinyl is performing best with sales up by 10%.

It’s little surprise really. We’re hardwired as humans to define our existence (in part) by the things that we own, and when it comes to owning music, vinyl records have the most presence and impact. That being said, vinyl records are still (by far) a minority interest. Streaming has taken hold of mainstream music consumption, and if the psychological research cited earlier is correct, there is a large portion of society more detached from music than ever before.

If we are ever to create future musical movements that last through the generations (think 60s British Invasion, 70s Glam Rock, Punk — or even Grunge, House, Brit Pop…) then artists and record labels had better start thinking about how we can make physical music more relevant in the digital age. The alternative is fairly bleak: a world where music is diminished. Reduced to a valueless rented medium — second best to your mobile phone and Netflix. Our children deserve better.