To post-Napster generation, the entire idea of owning music has changed

Being a professional comedian is hard work. Being funny on demand can be excruciating and the market in recorded comedy is small. Making money at it is all but impossible. But still thousands of would-be comedians flock to Twitter, offering jokes and missives to the masses for free.

Why give away what you’re already having trouble selling?

Marketing. And it’s a lesson that the music industry is going to have to learn if the latest crop of high school students have anything to say about it.

A little over a week ago, I took part in a roundtable discussion called Youth Tech Jam at a Scarborough, Ont., high school to get students to chat about how they felt technology was changing the world, how they interact with that new world and how it is going to change their future career prospects.

The students were between the ages of 15 and 18, and their world is most likely very, very different from your world.

One student told me they never pay for music. Ever. Another said they pay for music, just not the recorded kind. “I’d rather spend $40 on a concert than spend $40 on iTunes,” one young woman said.
The idea is pretty widespread, too. Not one person in the group of 12 saw any problem with downloading music for free. To them, it’s not theft, it’s market research.

To this generation, music is a promotional tool for a brand. It is what you use to promote an image, an icon and an ideal. The music is not the product, the brand is the product. Art is reduced to billboard.

Instead of spending money on digital downloads, these students argued, they would much rather go see a live performance, buy merchandise exclusive to concert-goers, or hold an autographed ticket in their hands.

In an age where digital products are copied, ripped and distributed with ease, the tangible still carries the most value.

Melanie Wood, who organized the roundtable discussion for CareerMash, says the whole idea is to get young people thinking about the future.

“These students are not just going to be the consumers that are buying and using the services being conceived of now; they’re going to be the employees that are building them as well,” she said.

Music was the first of the big industries to be disrupted by the Internet. Napster, and then iTunes, destroyed the brick-and-mortar music store before this generation of high school students ever had their first dollar to spend.

But rather than shun the idea of spending money, they embrace a new idea of commercialism that celebrates the way information spreads online: Anyone can post to YouTube, build their own website or live-stream a private performance, and so they they are expected to.

One student went so far as to say: “I mean, if my iPod holds 20,000 songs, that’s $20,000 to fill it on iTunes.”

The Web is no long where you go to sell your wares, it’s where you go to get discovered, and is exactly how the likes of Justin Bieber, Sam Tsui and even Rebecca Black found their fame.

The ads on YouTube alone provided Rebecca Black with a six-figure income.

For Wood and the Youth Tech Jam, these kinds of insights into the future of commerce are important survival tools for today’s big businesses.

“Like any industry, you need to be able to adapt to what the market wants in order to thrive. Our Youth Tech Jam conversations are an effort to shed light on where we should all go next,” she said.

These conversations will culminate in Montreal this fall with the World Congress in Information Technology, where Tech Jam people will join with youth from around the world to discuss the problems, opportunities and changes they see for technology. As difficult as it will be for industry leaders to accept that “piracy” might just be a new business model, today’s youth are building their own celebrities and supporting them financially.

Legacy music industries can choose to listen and jump on the new generation’s roller coaster, or be left behind.



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