What does it mean to buy 10 copies of a CD? It means you have 10 copies of a CD to deal with. What does it mean to “buy” 10 copies of an MP3? You have the same file sitting on your hard drive 10 times.

In one sense there’s no difference. If you throw 9 of your CDs away and delete 9 of your files, it’s the same outcome. But you can do other things with your surplus CDs – give them to friends, for instance. And here there really IS a difference, in that buying 1 (non-DRM) MP3 allows you to do anything that buying 10 or 100 or a million of them would.

The end of the idea of “music distribution” in the digital world is hardly a novel one, but things like a race for number one, where people are buying multiple copies of the same file, bring home to you the reality and the oddness of it. In terms of what it allows you to do, paying for 10 MP3s is actually just paying 10 times as much for 1 MP3.

Which reminds me a bit of the Radiohead “In Rainbows” model, which was supposed to be a transformative one for the industry by allowing punters to pay what they like for a record. More bands should adopt this model, said the analysts, and I don’t think many people actually noticed that the digitisation of music means that most bands already have adopted a modified version whether they wanted to or not.

The modification being that you can’t pay nothing for a song – you have to have an initial stake to get you the music in the first place. And paying “anything you want” only counts in increments of that stake. But if the stake for Joe McElderry’s record is 29p, and you think it’s worth, say, three pounds, you can pay three pounds for it and get a notional 10 copies.

Of course you might say that you’ve always been able to do this. And you have. But two things have stopped it being much of an issue. First is that there’s extra costs in buying multiple physical copies – securing a reliable supply, storing them, etc. And second is that the stake – the single unit cost – has generally been high enough that the total cost of bulk-buying mounts very quickly, which is why it doesn’t work for albums.

But with 29p digital singles the stake is low enough for this kind of de facto “In Rainbows” pricing to happen with ANY SINGLE. Which only leaves the question of why you would WANT to pay more than the initial stake. What’s in it for you?

The “In Rainbows” model turns the question round and turns it into a question of how much you value the music and how much of that value you want its creators to see. But the Rage vs Joe chart battle suggests another reason to do it: the more you pay for an MP3 the more your payment matters. And when that happens “the charts” become a different sort of game: a mix of popularity contest, weighted-vote political conference and stock market. If you pay £3 for the Rage single, your opinion counts ten times as much as someone paying 30p for the same single (or for the Joe one).

Is there a name for this sort of game? Yes, there kind of is: as I suggested in an earlier post it looks very like the mechanics of a reality TV phone vote. Each vote costs n, and you can buy as many votes as you like. The more you buy the more influence you have over the result. The honest truth is that the votes happen on so large a scale that buying 10 doesn’t make much more of a difference than buying 1, but on the other hand the sums involved aren’t large either and people aren’t deterred from putting their money where their enthusiasm is.

With a phone vote, unlike in an MP3 purchase, your initial stake doesn’t get you anything tangible or intangible. But it does contribute towards a definite outcome. For the music industry the sudden irruption of phone-vote-mentality into the “actual charts” is surely a tantalising opportunity. If people believe that this chart-game matters, then “In Rainbows” pricing suddenly has a wide mainstream application. But currently people don’t seem to think “being number one” matters except in very unusual circumstances like the present ones.

How could they turn the charts into a game? They need to turn them into a public event first. At the moment, as Peter Robinson noted in the last Observer Music Monthly, the people running the charts are mostly interested in how they can make them more reflective of “real time” listening and sharing of music. The sales-only chart is doomed whether we like that or not – and something like RATM v X-Factor will actually hasten this, as it takes what a “sale” implies further into the realm of abstraction. And in particular, the weekly frequency of the current charts seems increasingly arbitrary and outmoded.

But to make the charts a public event, the arbitrary frequency needs to be embraced – pegged to something else. What I’d suggest is this: something like Top Of The Pops, featuring the highest-rated (in sales, in sharing, in streamed plays) etc acts of the week, either performing or showing videos. This would include a phone vote element, and “Number One” would be determined by the winner of that vote.

This format has a bunch of advantages – it keeps an element of direct competition which people seem to like, it jailbreaks the stylistic straitjacket that’s the worst element of current reality pop shows, it puts more music in the public eye, it makes music something people can talk about more easily, and it makes money. As landlines continue to die out you could actually go further and give an actual MP3 copy of the record to every mobile phone voter, so the show becomes a music retail channel too (and the “Number One” honour remains linked with higher sales).

This is a huge jump from the rigid, transparent, sales-based charts that used to be such a successful industry tool. And I’d be surprised if this format actually happened (even if I think it would be somewhat awesome). But I genuinely do think that the lesson the record industry can learn from Rage vs X-Factor is that when music is virtual goods, its biggest opportunity lies in becoming more like reality TV, not less.