Friday, November 23, 2007

Squared to it, faced to it, it was not there

This is what I think of as a "Bill Cosby" story. It's one of those stories you tell by first telling something else to set it up.

I got my first credit card before I started working. Walked into a hardware store one day and they asked me if I wanted one. I was out of school but still unemployed at the time and I said so. They didn't care. Filled out the form, bang, got the card. At first, it was only good at that particular store, so no big deal. But they pretty quickly slapped a MasterCard logo in one corner and I was officially on the big time credit grid. Been there ever since.

I amassed a fair amount of debt over the years. It was never an amount I couldn't keep up the payments on, or had to sell of my car to manage, or lost sleep over, but it was still an anchor on me, taking a share of my earnings every month. So, about a year ago, I got rid of the last of my credit cards. I have a loan that will be paid off over three years, a little at a time. Effectively, at the moment, I don't really have any credit immediately available to me. It's weird living this way, but if I can learn to do this long term, I'll probably be the better for it.

One of the down sides, though, is how hard it is to do any shopping online, where a lot of the real savings and bargains are. So for a long time I've been looking for one of those prepaid credit cards... one that's on either the MC or Visa system, but the money you're spending is your own... it's already earned and in your pocket. You're simply paying to join a system to facilitate payments. I finally found one that I like, which is the MuchMusic MasterCard they're flogging mostly to teenagers.

Okay, as Bill Cosby would say, "I told you that story to tell you this one."

One of the perks of getting this card is ten free MP3 downloads from MuchMusic. I wasn't expecting much, but when I went there to check it out, I was surprised by what was available to me. An awful lot of songs are available for downloading at $1.19 (plus tax). I started thinking. It took me back to my early teen years when I didn't buy whole albums; I just bought the popular songs on the radio on 45s... for about what they're selling MP3s for here. Okay, you also got a B side song, but usually, it wasn't anything you wanted. Something had to be there. But after 20 or 25 years, it's nice to see it still so affordable.

This represents a real shift in the way music's distributed. One of the things that drove people to things like Napster and BitTorrent was that you couldn't just go and get the song you wanted. Generally speaking, the days of the 45 were well and truly over. No, you had to buy the whole album, usually sure of only one or two songs, for whatever they wanted to stick you for. I think people resented that. Some people will never buy if they can get it for free, true. But I think most of us will. $1.19 seems like just about a perfect price to me. And where I might have found another way to get a song if it was going to cost me $15-20 before, and they'd get nothing out of me, now they'll at least make something. And since they let you listen to samples of other tracks, potentially even more sales. This strikes me as an eminently good idea, and one of the best uses for the net so far.

Of course, this is bad news for the retailers. SAM the Record Man, iconic in my youth and known across Canada, faltered in recent years, and pretty much folded. Its flagship store on Yonge Street, which had been in business for around fifty years, closed for good last summer. Sunrise is in the process of shutting down. That will leave HMV and department stores. I'm not sure how to feel about this. It represents something very different from the way things were done all my life so far, and there was a real charm to wandering a record store and flipping through the colourful album covers and finding new things. I once bought an expensive import, 154 by Wire, in a record store on the basis of one haunting track they were playing while I was there. It would appear, then, that such experiences are to become a thing of the past, and end with my generation.

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