The Pirate Ship is Sinking


In 1863, French lexicographer Émile Littré defined a generation as “all men living more or less at the same time”. In his 1923 essay ‘The Problems of Generations’, Karl Mannheim decided stating the obvious was boring and postulated a sociological definition of generation on the basis of common experiences, thoughts and feelings tied not only to chronology but significant, Zeitgeist shaking events. For those born in the late 1800s, the psychological and economic fallout of WW1 saw Gertrude Stein dub half a billion or so westerners ‘The Lost Generation.’ In the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s the post-war masses loosened their belts and cemented their reputation as ‘The Baby Boomers.’ Jump forward a few wars, cultural explosions and an X and a Y and we have ‘Generation Z’; as Wikipedia sees it, ‘the generation that is currently being born.’

To understand the defining characteristics that ties together pretty much every single person you’ve ever met who doesn’t really know what Dallas was, it might be useful to turn to USA Today’s list of runners up to ‘Generation Y’: A list including iGeneration, Gen Tech, Gen Wii, Net Gen, Digital Natives and Gen Next. It might be even more useful to point out that our entire generation has been labelled and will probably be best understood post-us through the findings of an online poll. Where our parents and their parents were defined by war, feeling miserable after war and fucking, our thing is computers. And in particular, if the world’s governments recent digital curmudgeonry is anything to go by, stealing things on computers.

Whether or not we embrace this or any other characteristic common enough to conveniently lump together Generation Z’s millions of individuals, the numbers are there. In 2011 65% of downloaded music content was done so illegally, making up a significant proportion of the 40 billion files that were traded on the virtual blackmarket that year. Whilst Generation Z are not responsible for the entirety of this number, the tripling of content stolen between 2008 and 2011 does coincide nicely with our cohorts maturation and a 2012 OfCom study that found 48% of British 12 to 18 year olds had illegally shared content. By itself this tells us little of interest: our generation likes stealing music. We know this. But what we don’t quite know, and what seems to be largely untouched as an area of study, is the effect this proliferation of sticky fingers is having on the way we listen to music.

According to Matthias W. Kampmann’s application of Heitmann Peine’s understanding of perceived value in his seminal essay ‘Online Piracy and Consumer Affect’, perceived value is a multi-factorial concept consisting of quality, emotional, price and social judgements. Past a point, Kampmann argues, the less we pay, the less we value an object of consumption. Of the 35% of music purchased legally in 2011, 16% came in physical CD form – a slowly yet ever decreasing proportion. Join these two conclusions together and we find ourselves in a cohort unwilling to buy CDs, willing to steal digital files and, in doing so, inadvertently reducing the perceived worth of the music we listen to.

Of course this is not a universal condemnation or truth that strikes home in every instance. But equally, opting for quantity at the behest of quality in an effectively free market, piling tracks into a de facto limitless iPod and glancing at the video game-like listening figures on YouTube and in iTunes can and, at least for me, has become a part of the listening experience. As much as music is one of the purest and most persistent joys in my life, it has become an experience tied up with a multitude of factors that come part and parcel with the unique ease of access that has arisen in the last 10 or so years. Do we still love music? Of course. Does each torrented album lack a certain worth found in the eagerly anticipated vinyl or compact disc release of yesteryear? Probably. And now the market is shifting again.

A recent study by the NPD Group found that the number of music files illegally downloaded had dropped 26% between 2011 and 2012. The reason is not, as we might expect, the result of SOPA or the annoying ‘You Can’t Access This Page’ pop-up familiar to any Sky Broadband customer, but the proliferation of streaming. The jury’s still out on whether streaming services will be seen as a friend or foe of the music industry, but what’s not is whether this shift will affect the way we listen to music. As much as Kampmann’s findings and the symbolic displacement of songs following the move from compact to digital suggests a certain gap between the listener and listened to, changing from Hard Drive to Cloud implies a further displacement. Whilst an iTunes library can be as good as erased by a short, sharp knock to the back of your computer’s head, as long as it remains intact, it remains yours. Streaming may be easier, cheaper and an ethically valid alternative to filesharing, but it also removes a sense of ownership. Add to this the fraction of a penny sent to whichever artist with each listen, and Generation Z ‘s perception of music’s value may be severely lessened.