Let’s get physical: in music, bits take on appearance of atoms

Two developments this weekend point to how competing interests are trying to increase the value of their intangible digital content by re-imagining it as though it were ye olde packaged goods…

Singer Ellie Goulding is holding “the world’s first digital album signing” to promote her latest release, Halcyon – the latest high-profile celebrity chat facilitated by Google’s increasingly media-savvy Google+ Hangout team.

That, of course, is an anachronism. A digital album can no more be “signed” than thin air be coloured green.

But album sales are plummeting, displaced by the success of digital track download stores. For artists who still attach importance to the album, could “signing” digital content draw fans to buy the whole digital collection, not just individual favoured tracks? That remains to be seen from Monday’s event, when meeting Goulding in a video chat will likely be the bigger draw. The takeaway is this – buyers value an experiential piece of the creator.

While Universal’s Polydor, to which Goulding is signed, re-images the virtual as physical, EMI is suing a retailer doing just the same.

Boston startup ReDigi lets customers list their used, legally-bought MP3s and, soon, ebooks for re-sale  to peers as “second-hand” files. But the record label has taken the outfit to court in New York and: “The company is demanding that the one-year-old start-up pay a $150,000 penalty charge for each song it has sold on” (via Telegraph).

The case may centre on the apparent reality many retailers do not sell customers actual digital content but merely license to use that content – licenses which often prohibit re-sale.

Second-hand retailers of CD-based music and games like Music Magpie are becoming popular. By launching a secondary market for second-hand digital content, ReDigi is attempting to profit from introducing characteristics of the pre-digital content ecosystem, when primary and secondary value could be easily ascribed to artefacts that boasted tangible presence in the real world.

But labels like EMI would have plenty to lose from ReDigi song fees that could be just five percent of originals’. Although diminished, the industry has been kept afloat thanks to digital track downloads that were still growing by nine percent annually last year.

There is a parallel precedent in a separate jurisdiction and a related industry. In July, the European Commission ruled that customers can re-sell and re-buy licenses to computer software, as long as those licenses are deactivated prior to re-sale.

Sites like UsedSoft and Green Man Gaming are already operating such marketplaces. In the music case, much could depend on how stringently ReDigi ensures second-hand songs can no longer be played by their original buyers.