We no longer own what we buy, and what we have can taken away from us at any time, for any reason.
And Microsoft gave us a stark reminder of this when they announced the closure of the company’s ebook division. Despite being a pioneer of the format (Microsoft Reader was among the first digital book reading apps, released in 2000), the company had decided that selling ebooks wasn’t a business they wanted to be in anymore.
And when Microsoft pulled the plug, they also revealed that every single ebook their customers purchased was going to be, essentially, burned. Because users only licensed them from Microsoft (and never owned them outright), every ebook purchased from the company became inaccessible in July 2019.
This is not a new phenomenon or even the first time it’s happened. There were plenty of warnings of what would happen when we exchanged ownership of things for licensed “access.” When the company pulls the plug (or just pulls the file, as Amazon did in 2009 with an ebook of – irony alert – George Orwell’s 1984), all those things you “owned,” but not really, are taken away.
And this has an obvious relevance to dance music, particularly digital dance music which has always benefited from being sold by a myriad of stores.
Imagine an online retailer – say, Stompy.com – goes out of business. Instead of losing out on store credit or having a balance owed or any of the other headaches that happen when a vendor goes broke – imagine, instead, that every bit of music you “purchased” from them over a dozen years just vanishes off your laptop or your phone or from your copy of RekordBox (which itself might vanish one day too).
This is not a nightmare scenario but a highly likely one if DJ streaming supplants digital downloads. Retailers go broke all the time, especially in a business with tiny margins such as selling digital files (or licenses to them).
With Microsoft, it was a bit different. As one of the most profitable companies in the history of Planet Earth, Microsoft employs many credible public relations professionals who realized what a PR catastrophe bricking thousands of ebook readers would be. As a result, Microsoft will be refunding everyone who ever bought an ebook shortly before they snatch them away. This is obviously a luxury that a bankrupt streaming company couldn’t afford.
Until now, the burden of securing a digital record collection was on the collector. Aside from vinyl and sleeves, what self-respecting digital DJ doesn’t have drives backing up other hard drives?
But with streaming, there will be no way for a DJ to secure their record collection against a wholly different type of loss – when the company you buy from closes their doors or, like Microsoft, decides it’s just not worth it anymore.
A year ago, I noticed that DJ mixes of historical value were starting to disappear from the internet. Engineers and nerds used to say, ominously, that “the internet never forgets” but the internet forgets quite a lot, it turns out, millions of pages and files each and every day. I wrote a story about the demise of several huge historically important archives of dance music history called “The Internet Has A Memory Problem.”
This is more ominous than that. It’s not, as in the case of the archives shutting down, simple neglect or expense or technological rot. These will be deliberate acts of deletion. Culture really has no reference point for art being forcibly removed from libraries – other than, you know, actual art being forcibly removed from libraries.
Beatport is currently making the rounds, assuring labels that their new DJ streaming offering (called Beatport Link) is meant to supplement and not really replace download files. They’re also reassuring DJs that at the most expensive streaming plan (some $59.99 per month – a price that seems designed to scare off early adopters rather than encourage them), DJs will have guaranteed “offline” access to just 100 tracks per month.
But that’s provided the tracks you store will still be on their services. Or that Beatport, which likely ran in the red for at least the first 10 years of its existence and ran massive deficits as part of ill-fated dance music juggernaut SFX, will still exist. Would you bet your money on that? How about your record collection? Nothing is assured when you don’t own anything.