Right now Libraryblogland is all a-twitter (sorry) over the hurdles that have been piling up lately to prevent public libraries from making a wide range of ebooks available to patrons. Library professionals seem most frustrated by lack of options – for now, Overdrive is the single go-to vendor, and Overdrive in turn must deal largely with six international conglomerate publishing houses whose licensing decisions affect a huge number of individual titles currently in print.

Digital publishing is a new business, so the monopolies that dominate the world of library lending and, indeed, ebook sales are no big surprise. But are other, more established digital media any different?

After a music-buying hiatus, I’ve been listening to some new artists for free on Rdio. This week I FINALLY listened to an entire Neko Case album, and it was immediately obvious that Neko Case needed to have some of my money so that I could listen to this album whenever and wherever I liked.

Where would I buy it? I considered emusic.com, where I’d once been a member, but I wasn’t too crazy about starting a subscription again. 7digital partners with my operating system to provide the Linux equivalent of the iTunes store, and they seem pretty spiffy, but I figured I’d visit Ms. Case’s website and find out if she had any preference about where I bought her music.

Neko Case, who has recorded under a number of indie labels, only sells CDs on her website. CDs are pretty and it’s nice to own a physical object and lossless music would be groovy if I were an audiophile rather than a person who listens to music on noisy sidewalks through $3 headphones. If I wanted a CD, I would happily buy such an object from Case or my local independent record store (amazingly there is one in town). But as it is, it seems silly to have this physical object produced only so that I can rip it to mp3 and put it away in the damp, lightless den that is my closet.

Now, indie or not, I don’t expect every single musician and label to make their music available directly online. Maintaining a digital store isn’t free (okay, Bandcamp very nearly is, but it’s still a time-intensive enterprise). Musicians should make business decisions that fit their individual needs.

But the fact that Neko Case or Ani DiFranco or Dar Williams, indie musicians all, don’t point me to a venue for digital sales troubles me. I don’t mean to scrutinize them individually; they’re just handy examples in my unscientific survey. Perhaps they trust me, the consumer, to make a decision that doesn’t consolidate money and information in the hands of a few big businesses. Or perhaps they don’t feel confident that any online third party is their partner in the music-selling business.

ITunes and, to a lesser extent, Amazon have a near monopoly on digital music, just as a number of corporations have a near monopoly on producing the music they sell, just as Overdrive and six publishers shape digital publishing and lending. There are plenty of exceptions, and heaven knows there are plenty of good things produced by our current digital ecosystem. But that doesn’t mean we should be satisfied by the monopolistic takeover of digital art and information, where a few corporations get to make up the rules and rake up the rewards. We should fight for alternatives.

Advertisements