MAY 2012 IN

Context-Free Music and Disposable Light Bulbs

Change often sneaks up on us, and attitudes and expectations may change before there is an obvious change in behavior. Two examples of this from the past decade are recorded music and light bulbs.

Since about 1999, there has been no compelling reason to purchase music. Whatever style of music you prefer, there is a vast body of music online that can legitimately be heard and downloaded free, aside from the cost of the Internet connection. The word “vast” may be an understatement: every minute, hundreds of free songs are uploaded. Compare this to a typical music radio station, which may take a decade to add the same number of songs. Or to the output of the major record labels, which release perhaps 100 hours of new music on any given Tuesday. You can see that the music given away on the Internet is large in comparison to any other source of music.

By 2003, I was trying to point people to the availability of free music online, and thousands of other people were saying the same things. The message did not seem to be getting through; music fans still seemed mostly to want to get the same music they heard on MTV and on the radio, even if it meant paying for it or copying it illegally. Obviously, things have changed since then, and the biggest change is that music fans no longer seem particularly concerned about the source of music. A song is no longer seen as inferior just because it comes from an unknown recording artist or one who has no business connections and no products for sale. People still want to know the name of the recording artist, of course, but they no longer give much weight to the story behind the music.

Active music fans used to seek out new, fresh, original, well-recorded music, but those distinctions have become almost meaningless. Perhaps music is new if you have not heard it before, well-recorded if it sounds good. And fresh and original? With a million new songs every day, who is to say what is actually original? It is a situation that makes it harder than ever for a recording artist to get noticed, but at the same time, it is easier than ever for a music listener to find music that is rewarding to listen to.

If people are listening to music without quibbling about the context that it comes from, that is a huge change from a decade ago. And there is a simpler, but perhaps just as important, change in people’s attitudes about light bulbs.

If you ask most U.S. consumers, they are still using the same tungsten-filament incandescent light bulbs as before, and they think compact fluorescent and LED light bulbs are too expensive. Yet even though their buying patterns haven’t changed, the view of incandescent light bulbs is changing rapidly. People used to think of light bulbs as durable goods. With any luck, a light bulb might last two or three years, which roughly fits with the common idea of “durable.”

But as people gain experience with light bulbs that last for a decade or longer, even if these are in someone else’s house, the durability of incandescent light bulbs is no longer so impressive. Some last a few years, but many also fail in one year or less. That is not such a good result when, for a few dollars more, you can get a light bulb that might last for half a century. And so it makes sense that people are starting to think of incandescent light bulbs as disposable items. You use it, you throw it away. And with that new perspective comes the nagging irritation of paying for the same thing over and over again.

That irritation will lead to a series of changes in light bulbs. Manufacturers of every kind of light bulb to look for ways to make their products more durable and reliable. On high-stress days, consumers may find themselves more willing to spend the extra money for a long-lasting light bulb just to escape the hamster-wheel effect of replacing the same light bulb over and over. Even if this happens only occasionally, it still forms a trend, as you can see from evolution theory. As soon as a throwaway product is replaced with a permanent one, the opening for placing a product into that particular spot goes away.

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