Music Mania and Doing Good: Big Things Come in Small Packages

The iPod. The iPhone. Nifty little devices for packing huge inventories of favorite music. In the world of technology, small is BIG—at least some of the time. But today we find out just how BIG small can be. Apple, the people who invented the iPod and the iPhone, announced today that they are #1 in music retail in America. Wal-Mart has left the building; Apple is the new elephant in the room.

How big an elephant are we talking about? Apple has sold 4 billion songs (give or take) to more than 50 million people in this country over the past five years. Let’s do some math. Four billion divided by fifty million equals eighty. So, on average, American customers have purchased 80 songs from Apple. Since tunes go for 99 cents in most cases, that’s roughly $80 per customer, over five years. So $16 per year. Doesn’t sound like much, right? But fifty million customers cranks that figure up to nearly four billion dollars since Apple opened the iTunes music store. A nominal expenditure of financial energy on the part of a sufficient number of people yields an enviable cache of, well . . . cash.

Only 16% of all Americans achieved this result. Sixteen people for every 100 hundred Americans spent $16 on tunes each year for five years, and Apple garnished $4 billion.

Big things come in small packages, if you have enough small packages. But “enough” small packages can be a relatively small percentage of the total pool of possible contributors. In this case, Apple can generate an influx of $4 billion dollars from a relatively small percentage of Americans who love their music to the tune of about $80 each.

One lesson in this is that when enough people care just a little bit about something, and they show that they care with a modicum of energy, big things can happen. Apple has literally been banking on that.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that most Americans, when they click for a new iTunes purchase, are not thinking, “I sure hope there are a bunch of other Americans out there doing the same thing; otherwise, this just wouldn’t be worth my trouble.” They act for a limited good over which they have considerable control. But because lots of other people do the same thing, Apple is a big winner.

How often do we consider performing some action that would produce only a limited good (something we value), but we refrain simply because the good we can produce by ourselves seems too puny to bother? What if we interpreted our action differently? What if we decided to act for the limited good over which we have some significant control? What if we forgot about whether anyone else cares as much as we do about realizing that good? If we all did that, maybe big things—good big things—would happen.

Having a new three-minute tune to tickle my tympanic membrane is a limited good. I’ll shell out 99 cents for that, now and then. Budgeting $16 a year for this is within reason for most Americans. We manage our music mania pretty well. But it’s only music, after all, piped in through our iBooks, iPods, or iPhones. Surely there are greater goods we could each achieve with the same modicum of expenditure. So what are we waiting for? What good thing would you do, if only enough other people would do it, too?

Tell you what. I won’t wait for you, if you won’t wait for me.


Parenting with Purpose

What is a parent supposed to be doing . . . as a parent? My friend Mike Austin is author of a book called Conceptions of Parenthood (Ashgate, 2007). In an excerpt on his “Morality and the Good Life” blog, Mike suggests that parents should endeavor to train their children in skills that will result in their well-being over the long haul. This, he says, encompasses the goal of preparing them to live autonomously. Mike interacts briefly with William Irvine (author of Doing Right By Our Children), who stresses the value of freedom.

I concur with Mike, and would argue that the best kind of freedom depends on being rational, and is experienced as a result of making consistently wise choices. So educating children for freedom is educating them in a tradition of wisdom. And that involves guidance through experiences of choosing wisely in comparatively safe situations when they’re young, and in increasingly challenging circumstances as they get older. This would surely empower them to be even more effective in using their freedom to achieve the best and highest goals as they enjoy greater autonomy.

If we who are parents succeed in this endeavor, our children may be our own wise counselors some day.

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