Why download for free? Not because your credit history sucks

It’s easy to pick on Chuck Klosterman. He has a romantic story, going from earnest Midwesterner to high-flying scribe, which most writers would be jealous of, plus he’s been anointed as a “voice of his generation”. I’ve met him before and corresponded with him and he’s actually a nice, decent guy. At the right time, he does write superior articles too (i.e. his Britney profile and his rock death article for Spin). But his recent article for Esquire about why so many people download for free is long on shaky conjecture and short on common sense.

Klosterman’s theory is that because Generation Y (or Z) built up so much credit debt in the 90’s, they’re now balancing it off by grabbing songs without paying for them. Interesting idea… maybe… He does site some stats for credit card debt and the fact that it’s gone down but then he tries to tie that alone to the downloading sprees without anything else but advanced guesswork.

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say that it’s possible that some of the people downloading through services that ain’t authorized by the labels are thinking that this will balance out their credit history. But are you really gonna believe that’s the main reason why this happens? Also, are grade school kids, high school kids and college students now (or ever) thinking long and hard about their credit history? As if… It’s one of the farthest things on their minds. They wanna get laid and they wanna party and they wanna get decent enough grades so their parents don’t yell at them about their tuition money.

OK, so let’s do some of our own guesswork and try to figure out why free downloads happen so much.

– Start with the idea of ‘free.’ Everyone likes the idea of getting something for zilch but not for every single item. Try passing out napkin holders, table coasters or screwdrivers to young-uns and you ain’t exactly going to get rushed by them. But tell ’em that they can get their favorite songs for free online and without any insane DRM schemes tied to them and you got something there. It’s a perfect marriage of the right product for the right price.

– You add into that the idea of being part of an online community. You download the stuff, you offer the stuff for free yourself for other people to download, you swap songs and you get recommendations through the magic of P2P services. It’s your own self-made playground where you hang out with kindred spirits too. Where the hell can you do that offline so quickly and effectively? Kids don’t go to swap-meets.

– Also, add in the rogue factor. It’s illegal, right? It’s like underage drinking where you have the thrill of sipping that beer away from the eyes of your parents or “da man.” It makes it all more thrilling and exciting that you’re a part of this underground network.

– The labels haven’t done themselves any favors. When Napster started up, they didn’t have any good alternatives. They just hired teams of lawyers and sued as much as they could. It’s only in the last few years that they’ve been trying to catch up and for millions of users, it’s already too late to buy in to their new models.

– Then there’s the factor of convenience. Again, not having to deal with DRM restrictions is a huge plus. Also, being able to only pick the songs you want rather than having to buy a whole album or hope that your favorite tune comes out as a single is another bonus. i-Tunes has done part of this too and that’s one of the reasons why it became such a big success. But even there, you have to deal with some restrictions about which songs are only offered if you buy the whole album.

– Think about this- where you’d have to spend most of a year’s allowance to build up a strong record collection, you can do that now for nothing. Not only can get you grab all the songs that you’ve been enjoying and all the artists you like but you can even dabble and grab some stuff you think you might be interested in, all for the same price. You can pig out on as much as you want. You can be a music guru now or a DJ with hundreds or thousands of songs easily at your fingertips. If I had a laptop with me when I went to college, I would have done the same thing.

OK, so we’re diving into guesswork here too but all of this makes a lot more sense that pawning off “credit history” as the reason for free downloads. These same kids may suffer from credit crunch in years to come but for the time being, they don’t wanna hear about it. That probably means that we’ll be due for another housing bubble burst in about 10-20 years, so start savin’ now.