The Ache of Not Owning

Music by the Numbers [Detail]

I’ve always enjoyed music and, as the owner of an independent record label – in the days when CDs were one of the primary means of distribution – I’ve purchased a great deal of music in my time. My music collection is, as a happy by-product, extensive.

As the world of music moved on, from one characterised by ownership to one characterised by borrowing or ‘renting’, I regretted the evolution from physical to digital. I missed the days when music was given meaning by the quest to own a particular release, pinpointed, hunted down carefully and – ultimately – owned.

Adrian Shaughnessy’s Music by the Numbers, unsurprisingly, resonated with me and, if you’re involved in the world of music, it’s well worth a read. (Even if you’re not musically inclined, it has lessons to offer.)

Shaughnessy recalls a time when his, “Inability to buy [certain records] turned them into objects of mythic unattainability – jewels that could only be enjoyed by reading about them.”

That memory echoed my own, when I would yearn for certain releases, only available physically, often far from reach.

As Shaughnessy puts it:

I have floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with CDs.

But today these trophies of my musical infatuation lie untouched, forming a sort of silent mausoleum to my long-standing obsession with music of all kinds. And as they slowly acquire the dull patina of neglect, my musical needs are served by the new online streaming services that offer a cosmos of music in exchange for the physical expenditure of a few keystrokes, and a small monthly fee.

In that accessibility, available at a few keystrokes – the promise of a near infinite supply of… almost everything – something is lost, however. The ‘collection’ is replaced by the ‘everything’, and in the ‘everything’, we find ourselves owning ‘nothing’.

As we move towards a digital culture, where everything is within our digital grasp, infinitely reproducible, we are in danger of losing what attracted us in the first place, namely, the unattainable.

Algorithmic recommendations surprise us – pleasantly, of course – but an algorithm is no substitute for a friend’s heartfelt assertion: “You must get this!”

What can we learn from this?

We might have moved from a world of atoms to bits (as Nicholas Negroponte predicted in his excellent, and still relevant, book Being Digital), but – in that journey – we’ve lost something important. As humans we yearn to own objects, objects that we can identify with, as such it’s no surprise to see the rise of physical ownership re-asserting itself.

We might be living in an increasingly digital world, but – contrary to popular opinion – the analogue age hasn’t passed. The yearn to hold something in your hands, something physical, remains.

Your products might be digital, but that doesn’t mean you can’t consider the tangible when you create your touchpoints. Ask yourself: What physical counterparts might you offer that align with your digital catalogue? Make these. Share these. Your audience will thank you for it.

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