Sometimes it's a mistake to assume you're just like everybody else

>> Tuesday, January 08, 2008

I'm a nerd. Oh please, if you're a visiting family member who is still weirdly in denial: I'm writing a blog. Three of the entries in my Goodreads "current reading" list are rulebooks for role-playing games, and I don't even have an active gaming group right now, and two comic books. My last finished read was a John Brunner novel. My favorite movie of all time is probably Star Wars (i.e. A New Hope, to you kids born too late for the magic of '77). Hell, my favorite band is often branded the inventors of "space rock." (As I write this, incidentally, the shuffle play has conjured "Echoes," space indeed.)

Are my nerdy bona fides in order? Can we move on to the topic of this post? I am a nerd, and as a nerd I visit websites like Slashdot and John Scalzi's Whatever, where much is being made of Sony BMG's big announcement that they will be selling DRM-free music in the form of cruddy little pieces of illustrated cardboard. There's a good bit of mockery and snark, and why not? The idea that people will make a special trip out to a store to purchase a code that will allow them to then download an album from Sony BMG seems to make almost no sense--why would people do that when they can just download something from Pirate Bay? (The Slashdot post can be found here, the much funnier Scalzi post, imagining two teens discussing MusicPass, can be found here.)

The conventional wisdom in places like these is that MusicPass is a bad idea, that Sony has screwed up. Sure, it's DRM-free music (meaning, among other things, that it can be freely copied between computer and portable music player), but it's awkward and inconvenient and there's easier ways to download music....

The conventional wisdom in the nerdosphere is wrong.

Oh, they may be right on one point: it's possible this venture will fail. But it won't fail because it's clumsy or awkward. If it fails, it will most likely be because the people its meant for keep buying those bigger and clusmier and even-more-awkward CDs.

See, here's what my fellow nerds are missing: this isn't for us, and it's not actually about the digital or the music. Those silly bits of cardboard they're selling, that so many of us are making fun of, are the whole point of the exercise.

There was an article in Slate not-too-long-ago about the awfulness of gift cards. The problem that the article focused on wasn't the usual kind of complaint you see about gift cards: lack of imagination or effort, say, but rather the fact that gift cards are economically inefficient:
...Last year, the research outfit TowerGroup estimated that 10 percent of spending on gift cards in the United States was wasted because the cards expired or were lost without being redeemed. And it gets worse: Many cards are redeemed only after being sold at a loss by the original recipient.

Economist Jennifer Pate Offenberg has taken a look at the resale market on eBay. She concludes that a thriving resale market exists—but the typical seller accepts a 15-percent loss on the face value of the card, in addition to the cost and hassle of listing on eBay. Rather than give your loved one a $25 gift card, why not give them a $20 bill and flush the extra five bucks down the toilet?

Now consider these comments from the MusicPass press release:
"... The [MusicPass] cards themselves are high-quality collectibles featuring artist images and album information. They're a great choice whether you're buying for yourself, or as a gift for occasions ranging from a birthday to Valentine's Day." According to the 2007 American Express Gift Card Survey, Americans plan to spend 25% of their total gift spending on gift cards, up from 13% in 2005. 61% of shoppers said they were planning to purchase at least one gift card, and on average intended to purchase a total of six cards.

In the United States, MusicPass cards will be available at Best Buy, Target, and Fred's on January 15th, with Trans World stores (Coconuts, FYE, Wherehouse, & Spec's) and Winn-Dixie rolling out the cards by the end of January.

In Canada, participating retailers include Best Buy, CD Plus, Future Shop, Shoppers Drug Mart and Wal-Mart. In addition, HMV will launch MusicPass in Canada during the first calendar quarter of 2008.


"We're happy to be participating in the launch of a new physical format of digital music for retail," commented Jennifer Johnston Schaidler, Vice President, Music, Best Buy. "Physical products like this will be another way for Best Buy to deliver music and entertainment to our customers in a manner that suits their needs whether it is an impulse purchase, gift, or great collectible. Digital music doesn't need to be restricted to online environments. We look forward to learning how physical products can help grow the digital marketplace."

Rich Romano, Prepaid Card Sales Manager, Winn-Dixie, commented, "We are excited to have the opportunity to partner with SONY BMG to launch this initiative. An extensive list of titles and bonus material from superstar artists makes this offering unlike any other in the marketplace; it gives our customers the opportunity to purchase new release albums while they do their grocery shopping."
(emphasis added)

Notice? They're not selling music--they're selling collectible gift cards. It doesn't actually matter whether you take the card and go online and download anything. Frankly, they'd probably rather you didn't bother. You've paid $12.95 for a card with a picture on it. A card that has the added attraction that you could, hypothetically maybe, take a code off the back of it and get some songs and "bonus content." (Based on my experience with CDs with "bonus content," "bonus content" is generally a synonym for "crap that's maybe mildly interesting at best but loses its scant charms after about 30 seconds.")

There's a danger in assuming that other people are like you. Maybe they are, and maybe they aren't. Just because you like chocolate, or cats, or mountain bikes doesn't mean everybody else likes and understands those things. We geeks assume that computers are useful and the internet is friendly because we like computers and the internet. What could be easier than using Azureus to download a band's entire (pirated) catalog?

You mean easier than download and install a program that involves some acquaintance with TCP/IP ports for optimization? Oh, I don't know... that is pretty simple....

Oh, well okay, why doesn't Sony BMG sell USB flash drives with albums on them?

Because it's not about the music, or didn't you notice that the "Prepaid Card Sales Manager" of Winn-Dixie is talking about selling them in grocery stores? USB cards aren't flat and easily stacked in shipping boxes or hung next to the Altoids and US Weekly mags (have you looked at the awkward way flash drives hang from the hooks at Best Buy?); more importantly, they have weird initials in the name.

This past Friday, I spent much of the afternoon helping a coworker set up her iPod. Now, here's what's funny about that: setting up an iPod ought to be a matter of plugging it in. Part of the genius of the iPod is that it installs itself. So, is my friend dumb? Quite the contrary: she's a rather brilliant and capable woman with a law degree. But, unlike me, she's not a nerd. She has a dial-up connection at home, and doesn't really know the difference between the firewire, USB and ethernet ports on her laptop, and there's not much reason she should care, really. She was very patient with me when I was babbling about DRM and audio file formats in an overly-long explanation of the advantages and disadvantages of using iTunes. She can rip someone to shreds on a cross-examination and pick an opponent's case to shreds, but she doesn't have the faintest clue as to the difference between lossy and lossless compression. Why would she?

Scalzi and the Slashdot folks are making a fundamental error: they're nerds. Other people aren't. Other people, the normal people, are going to see these cards as non-intimidating, physically reassuring symbols of the possibility of obtaining scary, abstract data. They're like gift cards, like phone cards. They may even gain value as collectible cards, like baseball cards or certain phone cards. And if someone can't figure out how to use the code to download a song, they're not going to blame Sony: they're going to blame themselves for being "bad with computers."

And then they're going to call someone like me, and we'll be forced to figure out how to use the shitty little cards after all. But it'll be okay. It's sort of flattering, really. I enjoyed helping my friend with her iPod: I'm a nerd, I have special skills, I'm "good with computers." I'll probably enjoy giving someone a pedantic and vaguely patronizing lecture about how their thirteen-dollar card was a ripoff... as I'm using said card to help them get the songs onto their hard drive.

Has Sony screwed up?

Maybe not.


Wellsian,  Friday, January 11, 2008 at 4:09:00 PM EST  

Let's add to the nerddom: the most economically efficient gift is cash (almost nobody forgets to spend it). Cash as a gift often conflicts with many people's sense of gift-giving propriety, though, because how much you spend on a gift is supposed to be secret and with cash,'s kinda out in the open.

Gift cards are less economically efficient than cash but are much more efficient than ordinary gifts because the chance of the giftee getting something they really want is higher. Of course, with gift cards you know how much is spent, too, but for some reason gift cards don't have that same negative stigma as cash does.

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