[Setting: A focus group, reported here verbatim.]
Moderator [that’s me]: “So that’s the idea. Basically, I’m going to ask you all to talk about music, radio, the Internet, Napster, and stuff like that. Then I’m going to write an article about it. Because I think people would be interested in what actual teenagers have to say. Any questions?”
Teen 1: “After this, can we get some of those brownie sundaes at McDonald’s? Sorry, go on.”
Teen 2: “You did promise us compensation.”
Teen 3: “I have a question for Dan: does he have enough bracelets on?”
Teen 4: “I have 30.” [For the record, the bracelets are made of Jelly-shoe material and the figure of 30 appears accurate.]
Teen 5: “Hey, shut up, guys! This is Focus Group 2000! I love focus groups. Can we all say our name and date of birth?”
Moderator: “Um…I guess so. [Audible sigh.] Any real questions? No? Then we’ll get started.”
So began, with the above banter, my strange journey into the minds of America’s youth. Well, OK, just five members of America’s youth, high school students in the Chicago suburbs, to be exact. My sister happens to be 17 years old, and is a known fan of downloading free music. I took the opportunity recently to chat with her and four of her friends, all of whom are music fans and all of whom are aged 16 or 17.
A short clarification: Except for my sister, I didn’t know any of the participants previous to this focus group. Topics were only mentioned in the most general terms beforehand. I did not discuss specific questions or issues with any of the participants, including my sister, prior to the focus group.
Younger fans’ perspective on what music they like, how they want to acquire music, and what they think about Napster, has been the subject of a little bit of research and alot more speculation. This focus group featured two guys and three girls who live in various affluent suburbs of Chicago and attend high school together. The guys happen to be in a band; the girls are supportive yet sardonic fans of theirs. I realize that this does not make for a comprehensive study. Yet these teens provided enough information to challenge some assumptions and to suggest some new perspectives.
Teenagers are the youngest generation of serious music listeners and music buyers. By “serious” I mean, “They spend money,” and “They listen at high volume,” not, “They possess a facile knowledge of the complete works of Igor Stravinsky.” They are thought to be a sizeable portion of the Napster-using population. They’re the first music fans that are getting acquainted with file-sharing before they’ve ever purchased CD players for themselves. So teenagers’ outlook on music and technology issues is unique. Their attitudes and opinions will only have more influence as time goes on; their views are, necessarily, the future. A more in-depth, qualitative look at what they have to say can give us insight into how much they’d be willing to pay for music, what music and music-related products interest them, and their ideas about fair treatment for musicians.
File Nirvana Next to N*Sync
I started by asking everyone about their current favorite band. Teenagers’ tastes are certainly their own. “My favorite band is Blink 182…but I’m an old-school Wallflowers fan,” shared one participant. Since the Wallflowers’ one hit came way back in ‘97 or ‘98, I guess that makes them “old-school.”
Another girl mentioned N*Sync and DMX as her favorites. The two bandmates showed some solidarity by naming bands in the same genre: The Get Up Kids and Jimmy Eat World. One of the girls pledged allegiance to the guys’ band — Retro Morning, www.retromorning.com, there’s your plug, kids — but then took it back and named a band called Stroke 9. None of the bands that participants named as favorites overlapped.
I also asked about everyone’s first foray into music. The guys had both been exposed to Nirvana early on in life. “I was 6 or 7. I bought TLC and Come As You Are by Nirvana,” said one. He had purchased “cassingles” of each. The other had this to say: “In third grade I got a Nirvana Nevermind tape.” When I asked what it was like to hear such angry, teenage music at such a young age, he responded, “I guess I liked it. I listened to Nirvana and Kriss Kross.”
“My first concert was the Judds. We listened to the Judds in preschool,” said one of the girls. “And we knew every song,” added another. Someone sheepishly asked me, “Does New Kids on the Block count?” I assured her that it does — just because you were 6 or 7 doesn’t mean you can live it down.
In sum, these teenagers were exposed to juxtapositions of music from different genres at a very early age, courtesy of MTV, I’m sure. Many of them have continued to listen to artists playing what one could classify as very different types of music. When I asked them about genres, no one was interested in labeling their tastes with any specificity beyond “rock,” if they would provide a label at all. The word “alternative” meant nothing to them, as it probably shouldn’t — who could define it now?
These teens became accustomed to purchasing all kinds of music at a very young age, and have continued to do so. If they bought the New Kids or Nirvana at age 7, they’re now buying N*Sync and Nas at age 17.
Radio Killed the Radio Star
Radio still plays a role in these teenagers’ music listening routines. But that role is very narrow, and apparently diminishing. No participant expressed much satisfaction with radio. When asked if they listened to the radio at all, one responded, “We have to in the car, ‘cause we don’t have a CD player.” Another said, “I’m a flipper.” It seems that they would either prefer to hear their own tunes, or they’re looking for specific tunes, i.e. current hits, from the sound of it, that they don’t own yet.
Anyone who said they liked any radio stations named at least three. One person said, “I remember what radio station you listened to being a really big deal when I was in grade school.” So identifying with a single station or being loyal to a single station is an artifact of childhood for these teens.
When I heard the participants describing their radio experience so unenthusiastically, I asked them whether they thought radio was getting better or worse. Their instant responses were, “Worse,” “They kill everything,” and, “They overplay like some songs. You can love a song and be like, OK, I want to hear it, and then it’s nonstop, and then you hate it.” One person lamented, “It seems the more stuff comes out the worse it gets.”
These teenagers demonstrated some awareness that there’s a radio industry behind the radio that disappoints them. As one of them put it, “What they [the radio stations] do is create one-hit wonders. They’ll have a good song, and then they’ll overplay it, and then everyone will get sick of it, and by the time they [the artist] put out a different single no one will care.”
In responding to all of these radio questions, there was a heavy use of the word “they.” None of the teens could really describe “they” too clearly. But teens have noticed the effects of the radio industry’s consolidation — two corporations each own up to eight stations in each major market now, including Chicago — in the form of increasingly overlapping formats. Said one participant, “The other day, I was in the car, and the stupid new Janet Jackson song was on three different stations.” In sum, these teenagers seem to have already developed cynicism about the way radio hits are force-fed and overplayed — by every station at the same exact time.
I moved the discussion towards retail record stores next. Everyone reported purchasing between one and three CDs per month, no more, though I should also mention it didn’t seem like anyone kept close track. Everyone agreed that CDs cost too much. As one participant put it, “OK, I had to go buy the Coyote Ugly soundtrack…[insert collective groan from the group]… they didn’t have it anywhere, so I went to Coconuts, and it was $18, and that’s ridiculous.”
Since Best Buy offers the best prices in the area, that was almost every participant’s favorite “record store.” One participant said, “At Best Buy, CDs are like, $14. You can get an occasional $10.” The only dissenter named Sam Goody as her favorite. Another person mentioned, “I go to K-Mart [sometimes]. It’s close.” It appears that these teens attach no stigma to the huge corporate retailers. Forget about posters on the walls and hyper-hip counter employees who can tell you what’s coming out next week. They shop for CDs based on price. The record-buying “experience” carries no truck with them.
I did ask them about local independent stores. They knew something of them, but were nowhere near consistent customers. When asked if they liked major-label or independent-label bands better, one person responded, “Both are good.” So long as Best Buy can offer artists from both types of labels for cheaper, Best Buy will probably be their favorite store.
When I asked them what CDs ought to cost, one person said, “$10 is good.” Another elaborated, “$10 is probably the most they should cost, ‘cause they cost 40 cents to make.” Why a 40-cent production cost justifies a $10 retail price instead of, say, $5, was unclear. My explanation is that teenagers’ understanding of economics is based on what they’ve seen. If someone has offered CDs for $10, then that must be possible. But no one has offered new CDs for $5, so that must be impossible. Their conception of economics seems based on experience, more than on abstract reasoning about what a fair profit margin would be for stores and labels.
So if radio and record stores have been reduced to their most functional uses for teens, then what’s got their attention? The internet, of course. Each of the focus group participants reported spending about three hours a day at their computers. Almost all of that time is spent using AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) — which doesn’t prevent them from doing other things at the same time, of course — and appears to be irrespective of whether they’re in school or not.
Unsurprisingly, none of the participants bought their own computers. None paid for their internet access. One person didn’t even understand how the payment for her internet access worked, not realizing that a cable modem subscription cost a sizeable fee every month. (“I thought you just bought it and that’s it.”)
AIM has become an integral part of their routine. Said one person, “It would be weird to come home and not go online.” Another rejoined, “Yeah, I know, I just come home and go online every day.” One professed to feeling “disconnected” if she didn’t go online.
These teens do not, however, do much surfing of the web. (As one put it, “I don’t, like, surf the web.” ) They do read band websites. One person reported using “Momma.com, the mother of all search engines,” to do research for school. Another reported buying clothes online — with her mother. These teenagers didn’t happen to have their own credit cards, prompting one to note, “I never do anything where you have to pay online.”
Of course, many of them now have a new favorite activity online: downloading free music.
Which MP3? Hmm…I Guess I’ll Take the Free One
I started the discussion of online music by asking about purchasing MP3s. The response? “The pay-for-downloads? Yeah, I don’t know why anyone would do that; they’d just use Napster.” Makes sense to me.
Three of the participants are avid Napster users. Well, two of them are, and then there’s my sister, who’s now using Scour instead, thanks to Lars and crew. As if getting booted from Napster wasn’t insult enough, she has to endure the charges of lameness that come with downloading a Metallica song. One of her friends asked her, “You got kicked off, you downloaded Metallica?” She replied, “It’s my own fault. I should have been punished for it.” Her friend’s reply to that? “Yeah, Jesus.”
The other two don’t use Napster simply because they were too lazy to figure out how to work it. “I don’t know how to set it up,” said one. “I’m really, really bad with computers,” said the other. They end up asking their friends who do have Napster to find songs and make mix CDs for them.
Primarily, the Napster users saw file-sharing as a way to combat the problem of CDs that have one good song with the rest being filler. Said one person, “Basically, you can sample the stuff before you actually pay for the full-length album. I did that so many times, where I bought an album because I liked one song and then the rest of it just sucked.” Said another, “There are bunches of bands that just come out and have one song and then you never talk about them again. So you can just get those [single songs].”
Only one of the three downloaders actually uses Napster to sample CDs to buy later. One of the others said, “I probably rarely buy the CDÆ’I think I’ve done that maybe twice.” Another confessed to downloading an entire CD once, an album by VH-1 darlings Vertical Horizon. So some people are samplers, and some listeners just want a bunch of singles anyway, which Napster can give them quickly.
Why buy the CD at all? Because “CDs sound so much better than the MP3s,” and, “There’s no bass or anything on MP3s.” As one of the guys in the band put it, “Being musicians, there are certain things you pay attention to more than non-musicians. Just like the ways cymbals sound, they just sound really bad.” Added his bandmate, “Really trashy.” They also mentioned, “you might want the inserts and stuff.”
None of the participants showed any interest in enhancements for Napster. As one person put it, “Well, it’s really easy how it is.” They didn’t seem interested in organization by genre; they don’t think in terms of genres. I suggested that online music services could provide information on the band, notices of tours, and other “community”-related material, but got this reply: “If you wanted extra info on the band, you could just go to the band’s website.” Teenagers already know how to get what they want — and for free, I might add.
Napster Fought the Law And…
The Napster case surprised these teenagers. “I didn’t think of it as stealing,” said one participant. “I didn’t think of it as, like, illegal ,” said another. Most people saw no need for rationalizations: “I just think ‘It’s free.’ It’s free music.” But now that the legal battle between the record labels and Napster has become ensconced in the news, everyone in the group has thought about whether Napster should be legal or not.
Most of the people in the group seemed to be torn. They knew they didn’t like what Metallica did, saying “They’re already rich enough,” “It was really stupid they were picking on their fans,” and “I think they went about it the wrong way, kicking people off — they should have left people out of it.” And they didn’t necessarily think that high-profile artists should be compensated. One person criticized music celebrities’ sense of entitlement. Another said, “They should just be doing it because it’s what they love to do, and not for the money.”
But when I asked the group if using Napster should be legal, one person said this: “Well, I think that music should be more fully distributed, so — I mean, it is copyrighted, so I guess I do consider it stealing, but I think that the way that copyrights are set up is kind of weird that way.” Clearly Napster presents a real conundrum for music listeners of all ages. Most people in the group seemed torn.
Then again, one participant took the hard-line stance against Napster. Supporting Metallica (sort of), she said, “Yeah, they are greedy bastards, but it is their right, it is their money — I would be pissed off. Even if I had 4 billion dollars, and someone took, like, 20 bucks from me, I’d be like, ‘Hey, bitch, give me back my twenty bucks.’ Because that’s my money.” In other words, protecting personal property makes abundant sense to some people, even teenagers. So why does she still procure downloaded tracks? She explained with a marvelous analogy: “It’s like having premarital sex. You know it’s wrong, but you’re still gonna do it. And you get this pleasure out of it. You can quote me on that.”
How Would They Fix It?
The discussion eventually turned to idea about how things could be resolved. The two band members were enthusiastic about the new avenue to musical “success” that Napster appear to open up: “I like what Napster’s doing with independent bands. They have this section where they promote bands. They had this band up there for a week where you sign on and they had all this information on the band. That alone helped the band get big.” The band in question, Elwood, was said by the teens to have been “on the Napster independent thing, and the next week they’re on MTV.” The other participants said that they were familiar with Elwood from MTV, but hadn’t known about Napster’s role in their newfound fame.
This led to one idea about how Napster should work: “I think that it should be the artist’s choice whether or not they want their stuff on Napster. Because I’m in a band, I would want a million people downloading our songs listening to them. That wouldn’t bother me. ‘Cause we’re not necessarily doing it to get money.” Napster seems to have convinced this band, at least, that it offers an even quicker way to gain listeners than getting signed to a major.
People in the group also suggested that the big-name artists don’t need the money from record sales anyway. Most perceived TV and other licensing deals as far more lucrative. “Didn’t Moby make a ton of money off of his last album?” one person asked. “He sells all kinds of stuff that you wouldn’t even know is him.” Another pointed out how much cash the Rolling Stones got for selling “Start Me Up” to Microsoft.
Another idea for compensating the artists was suggested: paying them something like an hourly wage. “They should get paid if they’re working,” said one person. “But if they’re sitting around doing nothing then they shouldn’t get paid for it.” Someone else chimed in, “That’s just how the world works. I mean, if you’re working, and putting in hours, then you get paid, if you’re sitting around doing nothing, you don’t.” This would solve the celebrity entitlement problem, to their minds.
Finally, though, some more common solutions were discussed, including that of charging a subscription fee. Everyone agreed that they would pay ten bucks a month for Napster. “It’d be better than not having it. I mean, AOL, we have unlimited use, it’s like $20 a month,” one person said. Another participant liked the idea of micropayments, fees per megabyte downloaded. “A cent is just not that much. If you download 30 songs a week, it wouldn’t be that bad. Then again, I don’t know if they’d be making any money. It’s a big difference between $10 and micropayments of a cent.” In the end, it seemed everyone felt that compensation for artists was important, and thought it should be based on hours worked or listenership.
Not Piracy, Just Pragmatism
So what have we learned from America’s youth? Well, it didn’t sound like they had any good news for independent record stores. Or for the online music services trying to add other products to downloadable music: these teens like the stripped-down Napster model. It didn’t appear that they were too eager to pour lots of money into so-called “alternative revenue streams” like T-shirt merchandising and online band or label communities with subscriber fees. (They were happy to let corporations fork over some cash for licensing deals, of course.)
The news for Napster might be this: start charging subscriptions, and don’t muck up your site with advertising or ancillary stuff. The beloved Napster and the also-beloved AOL Instant Messenger aren’t so different — they both give teens a free platform to do what they want. Online music ventures, including Napster and MP3.com, are seen (by at least one teenage band) as possible vehicles to stardom and a mass audience — vehicles that might be faster and fairer than the old labels have been.
For the artistic community, I’d say that the implications of these teens views — if they’re at all representative, and I think they are — are that musicians are certainly respected enough to get paid, and their product is still worth money to the teenagers. They either ignored ethics or considered ethics and gave in anyway. But they are not libertarian ideologues. Getting something pleasurable for free when they have limited spending money was simply too good to pass up. So don’t expect high-mindedness or altruism; but also don’t assume that teens will be unreasonable when you start asking for compensation for your work. These kids can see that artists deserve a buck like anyone else.