29 September 02005

Stealth P2P research and its limitations

As the major-label record industry seems to be getting increasingly confident about pressuring peer-to-peer (P2P) music services to get into line, there is more open discussion about analysing P2P use as a source of marketing intelligence that can be used to grow sales. But by focusing exclusively on quantitative data obtained by stealth, the industry is still playing with one hand tied behind its back, denying itself the possibility of getting a richer understanding of what the figures really mean in terms of listener behaviour.

BigChampagne is the company that usually gets mentioned for its research into P2P usage patterns, and they've been doing it for a while: Wired profiled them almost two years ago. That feature notes the labels' reticence to admit that they were using BigChampagne's research, since "If the labels acknowledge a legitimate use for P2P programs, it would undercut their case as well as their zero-tolerance stance". If P2P starts to become legitimate — as with PlayLouder MSP or Mashboxx — then it becomes OK to tolerate it and to study it more closely.

One paragraph in particular sprang out at me from this more recent feature on BigChampagne and the analysis of P2P stats:

It's stunning to think about how much music fans are telling us about themselves, in their search queries, the libraries on their hard drives, and the lists they print on their MySpace pages. It's the same kind of quantum leap that we forget to appreciate in, say, web surfing or TiVO, where someone's collecting exponentially more information about you than they ever could before. A business like BigChampagne could barely learn more about your online consumption if they had a guy standing over your shoulder.

And that's just it. Why have a guy sinisterly looking over people's shoulders when, if listeners did not live in fear of litigation, you could observe and discuss their behaviour face-to-face? What is the long-term cost of relying on invading people's privacy — snooping on their searches and hard disks — and reinforcing a perception that the industry distrusts, and works in opposition to, its customers? There's a danger it could provide more impetus for people to share music via darknets, specifically to avoid being tracked in any way.

If the figures from P2P usage could be complemented with interviews and ethnographic observation of listeners, how much more could be learnt about the different ways in which people share files to research or substitute for purchases, about the kind of social networks that emerge around sharing, and how these networks can stimulate 'buzz' about a band?

By way of comparison, look at what The Work Foundation learnt from its ethnographic research into broadband usage. They were able to gain deeper insights into how, for users, "broadband is not just about speed" but changes the way people think about the time they spend online, and encourages them to create and share content, and use community-based applications while staying "anchored in the shared everyday experience of family and friends".

Perhaps the record labels are already doing this research, but either feel it's either a step too far to admit it, or the results don't fit with the assertions they're making in their lobbying?

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Future of Music, Music and Multimedia, Social Software on 29 September 02005 | TrackBack
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