Rhodri Marsden: Teenagers are maligned by the music business

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The Independent Tech

The music industry has a strange relationship with teenagers. Like a loving parent, it spends a small fortune trying to understand what on earth it is they want, before lovingly indulging them with treats.

Like an anxious parent, it gets nervous about their capricious, unpredictable behaviour. And like a dysfunctional parent with anger management issues, it blames them squarely when things start going wrong. "Young people have an inherent sense of what copyright is, but choose to ignore it," is a typical research finding, and such reports give the impression that they're all little horrors hell-bent on bringing an industry to its knees. Apparently, 86 per cent of teenagers copy music for their friends, says one statistic. Now, it's so long since I was a teenager that I barely remember The Icicle Works (the Eighties Liverpudlian wimp pop combo), but I do remember a friend copying their debut album for me, along with dozens of others. Are teenagers really entering a new era of moral bankruptcy? And are adults any better?

Industry figures highlighted in the trade publication Music Ally might make impartial observers wonder what the fuss is about. British teenagers spend more on recorded music than any other age group, and are grabbing a larger slice of that pie as time rolls on. The number of teenagers making at least one purchase in the last year is up from 33 per cent to 43 per cent. Yes, the overall amount that they spend on music has fallen in the last year – as with most age groups – but the drop is by no means as substantial as among twenty-somethings. Statistics on illegal downloads show that teenagers aren't even the worst culprits; piracy using P2P filesharing, MP3 blogs and Usenet is greater among 25-34 year olds. And the UK Top 40, a well-established indicator of our spending patterns, shows teenagers in control: if it's not them buying N-Dubz and Tinchy Stryder, then who is it, exactly?

Of course, it's easier than it's ever been for kids to get hold of the music that they want without paying for it. But your propensity to accumulate vast libraries of music illegally has more to do with your "digitalness" and your moral compass than your age. The fact that the recorded music industry is managing to prise far less money out of teenagers in 2010 has more to do with the competition for their pocket money; when I was 16, the choice was stark: records, magazines, computer games, sweets. These days, teenagers are bombarded with product information from thousands of companies desperate to confer some kind of coolness upon their brand; young people don't have limitless resources, so, unsurprisingly, they've become sophisticated consumers. And if a console game seems like a more compelling alternative to music, then music has simply been out-cooled. What can you do?

Julia Shalet, founder of the Digital Youth Project, has been highly critical of the patronising suggestion that teenagers merely want something for nothing. "All of us try to get more for less," she says. "That's human nature. But teenagers have more of an ethical slant on this than we think. They're happy to spend money on things that are useful, or entertaining, or enable them to show their friends that they've discovered something." Perhaps, instead of screeching at teenagers, the industry would do better to concentrate on selling products that can't be converted into zeros and ones and pushed down a broadband pipe. Not trainers, though. Someone's thought of that already.

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The touchy-feely world of social media has had the unexpected effect of bringing us close to our spectacle manufacturer, our MP, our supermarket's in-store magazine. As a result, we no longer think twice about firing off a message to the head of a company; indeed, Steve Jobs even replies to some, albeit in a perfunctory way. But when Giorgio Galante twice detailed his customer dissatisfaction to the head of American telecoms giant AT&T last week, he received a distinctly un-touchy, un-feely telephone call from an AT&T representative threatening a cease and desist order. The irony of the corporate world getting cross at receiving insistent messages via a medium as easily ignorable as email is so huge it makes me wince; after all, we roll our eyes and delete millions of junk emails urging us to buy stuff on a daily basis. If I were to follow AT&T's example, I'd spend the rest of the morning ringing up Sky, lastminute.com, eBay and John Lewis, bellowing in irate fury. But unsurprisingly, I can't be bothered.

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