June 29, 2020

Rent cathartic experiences, own addictive ones (theory and examples from media, arts, entertainment, sex)

The discussion of ad-infested streaming entertainment made me seriously think about buying mp3s for the first time in my life, rather than rely on YouTube for songs that are too recent for me to own on CD, and that probably wouldn't be worth owning the whole album for anyway. This led me to a more general conclusion on whether to rent or own, based on how frequently and repeatedly you want to re-experience something. In short, whether it is cathartic vs. addictive. But more on that later.

Till now, for songs that I didn't own on CD, streaming via YouTube has been the best option for price and convenience: the only cost is an internet connection, and with an ad-blocker installed on your web browser, you don't have to pay the cost of watching ads. However, with the recent aggressiveness of YouTube in the arms race against ad-blockers, it's possible that the era of cost-free and ad-free streaming will be as brief as the era of pirated file-sharing in the early-mid 2000s.

Today, the option that the IT cartel is pushing is paid streaming services. Even Apple threw in the towel on that one, when they were pioneers in buy-to-own digital music distribution. See here for an overview. You pay a flat fee per month, and get "unlimited access" to their music library. Spotify Premium is the leader there, costing $10 per month to stream anything in their library without ads.

The alternative, older model, is buying mp3s a la carte from some site that is still offering them, say the iTunes store. I didn't use that model when it was popular, but only because I was buying CDs -- not because I was pirating 100s or 1000s of mp3 files. I was still buying-to-own, and supplementing that in the 2010s with streaming via YouTube (free, no ads) to get songs that were too hard to find on CD or weren't worth the cost of the entire album.

There are certain advantages of buying over streaming that are obvious to normal people -- though not necessarily to the IT geeks who dominate discussion of these matters -- but have already gotten a fair amount of treatment.

Briefly, these things stem from uncertainty. Will the streaming service exist in 1, 2, 5, 10 years down the road? If not, you no longer have access to jack shit, and you have nothing to show for all the years that you did -- you were not renting-to-own. What if the corporate board of some record label decides, for any reason, to remove songs you like from a streaming library, or refuses to make them available in the first place? Now you have unlimited access to far fewer songs that you want, just like the absence of Star Wars and other mega-popular movies on Netflix. What if they merely put an expiration date on their songs for streaming access, just like movies on Netflix? Great -- unlimited access to a limited-time-only experience.

Here, the instability comes from the fact that the streaming platforms are distributors only, they did not produce the songs to begin with. The actual producers -- the record labels, the movie studios, etc. -- have final say over what is available in the libraries of any streaming service.

But there is a separate, undiscussed matter of genre -- is some form of entertainment worth experiencing again and again, or are you unlikely to want to experience it again -- even if you liked it the first time? If you will feel like experiencing it again, you should own it for good, so you don't have to pay an ongoing fee, time after time. If you are unlikely to experience it again -- even when you already liked it the first time -- then you might as well rent it once, rather than own something that will sit idle potentially forever.

The contrast between feature-length movies and songs is revealing. We'll start with history because that tells us about evolution and adaptation. If some model has passed the test of time, it means more than a model having passed through only the "possible fluke, but not absolute failure" test.

The overview in Variety linked above quotes Steve Jobs as stating flatly that people don't want to rent their music, they want to own it -- as though Jobs had been proven wrong by subsequent developments in the streaming music model. But he was correct -- if people wanted to rent music, they would have done so at any point in the past, in at least some format of recorded music. And yet, nobody rented music at any time in the past, in any format (reel-to-reel tapes, vinyl records, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, mini-discs, etc.). Public lending libraries might have had a music section, but they were free to check out, and nobody relied on that as their primary way of listening to music, only to sample albums occasionally.

The closest example of renting music is live concerts or nightclub attendance -- you pay to hear music that you cannot play back or re-experience later on. But notice that a concert or night at a club lasts for hours, unlike a single song or even album, and that it is much more of a spectacular event than listening to songs or albums. And again, that was never the primary way of listening to music for anyone at any time. Nor are streaming services offering anything similar to an IRL concert -- just those same old single songs or albums that you could've bought on CD, not the spectacular event.

There were no technical reasons that prevented people from renting music in earlier times. Hit songs were released as singles, if listeners just wanted that one song, and albums were popular as well. So why not rent a single 45 / tape / CD that was your earworm du jour? Or the album that all your music friends recommended? For some reason, people just don't want to rent music.

That means that the current moment of paid streaming music services is the anomaly of dubious durability, not the old iTunes store. Especially when it is used as the primary way of listening to music. It doesn't matter what exactly is causing the anomaly -- IT geeks chasing a shiny new app for novelty's sake, a professional class so flush with free money from the central bank that they have nothing better to spend it on than music subscriptions, an increasingly cartelized supply side dominating the demand side against the consumers' preferences, or whatever else it may be. The point is, people do not want to rent music, they want to own it.

And yet look at movies. For decades the main way people saw movies was renting them -- paying at the box office to see it in a theater, after which they could not see it again without paying another rental fee. Renting vs. owning does not depend on where you experience it, or where you pay for it. Watching a movie in a theater is renting.

After theaters, the most common way was renting from a store, across all manner of formats -- Betamax, VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, Blu-ray, and even film prints for niche audiences. In the 2000s, people rented movies through the mail, with the original Netflix. Then Redbox stands popped up to cater to yet another form of demand for renting movies.

Even when people bought these formats, it was not necessarily to own them. It was also common to buy a movie, watch it a few times max, and then sell it into the second-hand market. That is a form of renting -- paying an a la carte fee to temporarily enjoy the thing. Maybe the rental period was a bit longer than 3 days, and was decided by the viewer, and maybe the rental fee was steeper as a result. (You buy for $20, sell for $5, net rental cost is $15 as opposed to $5 or whatever for a standard 3-day rental.) Still, buy-then-sell is just a form of renting, not owning.

For the past decade, as Netflix switched from physical to digital rentals, the most common way of seeing movies outside of theaters -- certainly if they are no longer in theaters -- is renting via streaming. That does not depend on the particular terms of the rental -- a flat subscription fee for "all access," a rental per title akin to the old video rental stores, or whatever else comes down the pike.

* * *

Over all these decades of watching movies, renting was always more common than buying-to-own, no matter the format. So, unlike songs, movies are something that people do want to rent rather than own. What distinguishes songs from movies? At the surface level, people want to listen to specific songs over and over again, while they can be satisfied after watching a specific movie once in their entire lifetime.

At a deeper level, this reflects two separate traits. First, movies are narratives with clearly defined informational content (the who, what, when, where, why and how of the plot), whereas songs are not narratives and do not have such clearly defined semantic content, nor is this information of central concern to listeners (the lyrics are more evocative, and listeners care more about the music itself).

A major part of watching a movie is learning the who / what / when / where / why / how, which is why people don't like having the entire plot spoiled ahead of time. Once you've learned that, it's hard to forget, so why watch it again? Song lyrics are evocative, not narrative, so there's not much to learn about what they're conveying, and we wouldn't mind if somebody told us in advance what the lyrics were.

Songs are more about evoking a mood, whether vague or highly detailed, for the listener to resonate with. So whenever you want to get into that mood -- or are already in that mood, but want some amplification -- you will feel like playing a specific song that you know works in setting the desired mood. That's why you keep coming back to that one, and the others like it.

Second, movies are a more cathartic emotional experience than a single song or even an entire album. Movies put your mind in a refractory state at the end. After watching a movie that you like (we understand why you wouldn't want to re-watch a movie that you hated), you can't watch it right afterward. Probably not even the next day -- maybe the next week, although more likely within the next year, or years later. Listening to a song you like does provide a little catharsis, with its build-up / climax / winding-down of tension, but not nearly as much as a feature-length movie. You can easily put a favorite song on repeat 10 times in a row.

The same goes for entire albums -- and although some are as long in duration as a movie, they are not as cathartic. So it isn't duration per se that matters. What matters is that albums are usually not structured into a holistic gestalt like a movie, but more like an anthology. They can be decomposed into the separate songs, and you could play them in any order and still enjoy it. Albums are not narrative either, but lyrical and evocative. Because the scale of the catharsis is smaller for albums than movies, it's no big deal to put an album on repeat, or at least play it once a day, week, etc., unlike playing the same movie multiple times per day, week, etc.

Novels are like movies, and most readers would rather rent them from a library or buy-then-sell. Today it's more of an activity for collectors, enthusiasts, and the like, so there is more of a buy-to-own behavior, but not when it was a mass-based medium.

TV shows can go either way. The heavily serialized narratives of prestige TV are like movies, and those ones people prefer to rent (stream). Anthologies that are less drama and more comedy, like the golden age of the Simpsons, people would rather own than pay an ongoing rental fee. The bits, the sight gags, the punchlines are like riffs from a song that never get old no matter how many times you experience them. Others may rent such shows for trial-and-error purposes, or to briefly re-visit a show for nostalgia reasons. But for those who really like the early years of the Simpsons, they'd rather own them than rely on streaming them.

Video games can go either way as well. A pseudo-movie with a narrative focus and cathartic experience -- just rent it. Even if you liked it, you couldn't start it over for awhile anyway. I've been out of the loop on video games since the 2000s, but I have regularly heard video game players complain about buying one of these narrative games, and then it just sits on the shelf without getting played again, even if they liked it. They would've preferred renting it.

For a non-narrative game that is more of a steady addiction than a catharsis with a refractory phase at the end, own it so you don't have to pay an ongoing fee to feed your ongoing addiction. Early video games were like this. They were non-narrative and did not produce a soaring high and satisfying ending, but rather more of a steady engagement of interest. That was true for side-scrolling platform games like Super Mario Bros. 3, racing games like Super Mario Kart, or first-person shooters like GoldenEye 007. Not to mention arcade games from the '80s or '90s.

It may be true that, during the first couple decades of the medium, video games were popular at video rental stores, seemingly against the theory here. But that was just because the target audience was children, and renting them was only for cost reasons -- not because they were a standalone experience that the players only wanted to rent once and be done with, perhaps for life. The same goes for arcade games -- players would have rather owned them than rent the machine in the arcade by pumping in quarters. But that would've been far too expensive.

The pattern is easier to see today, when the audience is more grown-up and has more disposable income, and where the expensive original physical devices are not the main way people play them (arcade cabinets are rare, and home cartridges and discs are hard to come by as well). They're going to be a low-cost digital emulation of the original game from the '80s or '90s. And it turns out people would rather download them to own -- e.g., from Nintendo's Virtual Console store on its home consoles since the Wii -- than pay a subscription or a la carte rental fee to access them for a limited time.

Sports events are like movies. They have a highly narrative focus -- who did what when, how did the score progress, and who ended up winning. And they tend to be highly cathartic, with tension building up, reaching a climax, and leaving viewers satisfied for awhile after. The action may be unscripted, unlike a movie, but it follows a similar course and produces a similar effect in the audience. And sure enough, almost no one wants to own a recording of a sports event they've already seen, even those they highly enjoyed. Just rent it by forking over the pay-per-view fee, or buy a ticket to see it in-person (like a music concert), and then never worry about it or pay for it again. Only events that reward repeated viewing (historical records reached, or whatever), would people want to own.

The same goes for other performing arts. If you can't or won't make it in person to the ballet, opera, theater stage, or circus arena, first there must be a recording of the performance. Assuming there is, and even assuming you like it, would you rather rent it or own it? Rent, of course. Those performances, even when not strictly narrative like some ballets, still have a holistic gestalt organization that cannot be decomposed into pieces that could be rearranged and enjoyed in any order. So there still is some long, complex sequence of events that unfold in a certain order. And they are more cathartic than a song or album.

For high / classical music, operas would come last for owning (rent a performance or recording), followed by symphonies, which are highly structured and holistic. What most people buy-to-own in classical music is anthologies, whether intended to be that way by the composer or curated later by a publisher. That's why a typical listener's classical music collection is less likely to have the complete symphonies of Beethoven or Wagner's operas, and more likely to have Chopin's nocturnes, Bach's fugues, and Schubert's lieder. As much as those latter three may differ, they share a lower level of "narrativity" compared to symphonies and operas. It makes them more able to be played regularly, perhaps even on repeat if it's catchy enough and puts you in the mood you want to be in.

Finally, to show the generality of the theory by providing a case study outside of media, arts, and entertainment, consider what kinds of experiences people have paid prostitutes for over the millennia. They are renting her body, not owning it. What do you know, the theory checks out again -- the acts are the highly cathartic types of physical intimacy, not the acts that just set a mood and that do not produce catharsis and a refractory period afterward. They all involve the guy climaxing.

Why not those like kissing, petting, fondling, and so on? Assuming he liked the girl, and he's in a horny mood, but either didn't want to or couldn't afford to pay for climaxing, why not at least pay for making out? Because that just leaves the john wanting more, like a catchy song, and would lead to paying over and over for an indefinite make-out session that kept him in that mood. Those addictive rather than cathartic acts are more for a girlfriend or wife, someone whose body you come closer to owning than renting. If he rented those acts, he would be visiting the prostitute every day, rather than only once in awhile for climaxing.

Strange as it may seem, the guy's primary partner (gf / wife) is defined more by her engaging in these lower-intensity addictive acts than in the high-intensity cathartic sex acts. He may have a regular side piece, irregular one night stands, or visits to prostitutes -- but those all involve climaxing only, not necessarily making out and other lower-level acts. The sign that he wants to own your body, rather than just rent it, is engaging in the mood-setting, addictive, touchy-feely, lovey-dovey stuff in an indefinite, ongoing manner -- not the climax that he might feel OK experiencing with a rental body in a one-and-done manner.

Women realize that, and are more likely to get jealous and vengeful if they picture their bf / husband in a hot-and-heavy make-out session of indefinite duration, where even after he's left her room he may want to go back to her in only a matter of hours. Not so much if they picture a pelvic jackhammering bound to end with him in a refractory period sooner rather than later, therefore wanting to GTFO of her room for the next several days / weeks / months, and return to his gf / wife.

The generality of the theory holds up so well that when we see departures from it, we can treat it as anomalous and requiring special, perhaps case-specific explanations. Fad, fluke, fashion. Imbalance of forces between the two sides that render the decider unable to do what they prefer. And so on and so forth. We don't just assume that some micro-trend du jour proves, or disproves, some grand claim about human nature -- especially in light of the relevant history. To reiterate the original motivation here: people do not want to rent music, they want to own it.

1 comment:

  1. Gossip Girl has an '80s episode: Malibu, 1983, new wave music scene. Toward the end of season 2.

    Just when you think this show can't get any cooler, or any more packed with late 2000s tropes, in this case '80s night. Great soundtrack as usual.


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