How Do You Sell a Second-Hand MP3? Amazon Wants to Try.

How Do You Sell a Second-Hand MP3? Amazon Wants to Try.

How do you sell a second-hand MP3? Amazon wants to try.Digital downloads.  We love them for their convenience, but they deny us the pleasure of pawing through boxes of second-hand vinyl, cassettes and CDs.  Sure, there’ll be a few used record stores holding out for decades to come (peddling “antiques”), but will anyone ever enjoy picking up a cheap, well-loved copy of 2013’s album of the year?

If they’re shopping on, they might.  Amazon was recently awarded a U.S. patent for a “Secondary Market for Digital Objects”.  In other words, they’ve patented a method of selling “used” digital music, as well as ebooks, apps, and images.

So how would this work, exactly?  If a downloaded music track is just, well…invisible data, essentially untouchable, how can one individual copy of that digital track be transferred to another owner?  What’s to distinguish that invisible data as “used” rather than “new”?

When you buy a second-hand album, you know you might be getting a product that’s been played 1,000 times.  Its sound quality is potentially diminished from repeated scrapes under a stereo needle.  The same goes for cassettes, with the physical tape having possibly been kinked or twisted in places and the music garbled.  That’s why we typically pay less for anything that’s “used” – we know it’s been through the wringer once or twice.

The details of Amazon’s second-hand digital media plan aren’t yet known.

We can’t help wondering how this will shake out for artists and labels.  Will you get less money on a track that’s been re-sold?  Will that second-hand digital object be priced lower than when sold as “new”, even though its quality is essentially the same?

Jesse Bonner, vocalist and guitarist for Philly pop/alternative rock band Bonner, has his concerns. “I worry that people could download Bonner’s music illegally, and then sell MP3s without us getting paid for either the original or second-hand track.  And what stops them from making multiple copies of the original and selling them all?”

Maybe a second-hand MP3 track will cost less than a “new” one – but only by slightly less, whereas a second-hand CD, tape or album might be slashed 50% or more.  Some artists might even argue that they’d be willing to take a small hit on each second-hand digital transfer – if it means encouraging more sales overall, and helping to extend their reach to more listeners.  So says Ryan Francis, a guitarist for the post-hardcore U.K. band A City in Silence: “In our current band situation, I would rather two people own one album than buy it new. Money is nice to come across, but to us publicity and getting people to hear our music is the most important.”

Chris Martin, owner of Boston-based label Prospect Records, expressed a similar sentiment. “Our idea is to put out music we feel strongly about, even if it doesn’t bring in a profit. If second-hand MP3 tracks are the future, then we can definitely adapt to it. If you can’t adapt to change as a record label, then you’re in the wrong industry. It’s forever changing.”

What do you think?  Is there a way this could work, and still be fair to everyone?  Chime in with a comment here or on our Facebook page.

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