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Reconnaissance Reports from Planet Teen

Everyone's buzzing about a headline in Monday's Wired Campus blog from the Chronicle of Higher Education: "New Study Shows Decrease in Illegal Music Downloading". The survey of 1,000 music fans was carried out by a pair of British research organizations and initially described in The Guardian on Sunday. The Guardian headline: "Collapse in illegal sharing and boom in streaming brings music to executives' ears".

While the headlines and opening paragraphs emphasize a shift from downloading to streaming for music consumption among teenagers, a more careful reading reveals some nuances, such as this from The Guardian:

The picture may be more complex than a simple shift from filesharing to streaming, with people sharing music in new ways such as via bluetooth technology, on blogs, and through copying, also known as ripping content from friends' MP3 devices.

This calls to mind a New York Times article from two years ago. Under the headline "Plunge in CD Sales Shakes Up Big Labels", the article noted:

The "social" ripping and burning of CDs among friends -- which takes place offline and almost entirely out of reach of industry policing efforts -- accounted for 37 percent of all music consumption [in 2006], more than file-sharing.

So the more things change, the more they stay the same. Still, the CEO of one of the survey organizations says:

File sharing is a moving target... It's already being somewhat displaced by other means of accessing music for free. Some are licensed, many are not licensed and some involve a bit of both. Kids find services like YouTube much more convenient for checking out new music than filesharing. But even YouTube can become a source of piracy with some kids ripping YouTube videos and turning them into free MP3 downloads.

Coincidentally, a day after the Guardian article appeared, the Financial Times reported the results of a second survey covering the same territory. In this case, though, rather than high-powered research firms employing teams of well-paid professional statisticians, the source was a bit more down-to-earth:

A research note written by a 15-year-old ... has become the talk of middle-aged media executives and investors.

Morgan Stanley's European media analysts asked Matthew Robson, one of the bank's interns from a London school, to describe his friends' media habits. His report proved to be "one of the clearest and most thought-provoking insights we have seen. So we published it," said Edward Hill-Wood, head of the team.

The response was enormous. "We've had dozens and dozens of fund managers, and several CEOs, e-mailing and calling all day," said Mr Hill-Wood, 35, estimating that the note had generated five or six times more feedback than the team's usual reports.

Matthew Robson's complete report is available from The Guardian, divided into these sections:

  • Radio: "Most teenagers nowadays are not regular listeners to radio..."
  • Television: "Most teenagers watch television..."
  • Newspapers: "No teenager that I know of regularly reads a newspaper..."
  • Gaming: "Whilst the stereotypical view of gamers is teenage boys..."
  • Internet: "Every teenager has some access to the internet..."
  • Directories: "Teenagers never use real directories..."
  • Viral/Outdoor Marketing: "Most teenagers enjoy and support viral marketing..."
  • Music: "Teenagers listen to a lot of music..."
  • Cinema: "Teenagers visit the cinema quite often..."
  • Mobile Phones: "99% of teenagers have a mobile phone..."
  • Televisions: "Most teenagers own a TV..."
  • Computers: "Every teenager has access to a basic computer with internet..."
  • Games Consoles: "Close to a third of teenagers have a new games console..."

The report concludes with two sections called "What is hot?" (example: anything with a touch screen) and "What is not?" (anything with wires).

Here are two of Robson's observations worth spotlighting:

  • British teens don't twitter:

Teenagers do not use twitter. Most have signed up to the service, but then just leave it as they realise that they are not going to update it (mostly because texting twitter uses up credit, and they would rather text friends with that credit). In addition, they realise that no one is viewing their profile, so their "tweets" are pointless.

  • Remember where we started, with the headlines about streaming winning out over downloading? Well, maybe not:

Almost all teenagers like to have a "hard copy" of the song (a file of the song that they can keep on their computer and use at will) so that they can transfer it to portable music players and share it with friends.

All of which gets us back to one final Guardian quote on the subject of teens' supposed preference for streaming:

Francis Keeling, vice president of digital at Universal, welcomed the news but said streaming had to be combined with new services, such as the company's new deal with Virgin Media which will offer broadband users unlimited downloads for a monthly fee. "We are confident that the numerous legal alternatives to filesharing will result in a long term reduction in piracy," he said.

So, whether it's streaming or downloading, we have here one more vote for a collective licensing model to monetize music, an approach long championed by Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and many others.

As it happens, next week's ICPL Annual Conference in Ithaca features a panel with representatives from two organizations attempting to make a business out of Internet music licensing: Jim Griffin, representing Choruss, and Terry Fisher, speaking for Noank. The panel is called "Dancing with the Devil: New Alternatives for Campus Music", and takes place 8:30-10:00am on Thursday morning, July 23.

And, yes, it will be streamed live over the Internet.

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