The Decade of the Download
As the analysis of the decade’s musical highlights begins, it is worth looking back at how the last ten years have irreversibly altered the way we get hold of (or “consume”) that music.
At the turn of the century, Napster was the music industry’s greatest enemy offering an almost endless amount of music to download for free. With the future of music’s relationship with the internet still uncertain, there is much to learn from the battle that has shaped how we listen to music in the 21st century.
By 2001 the lawsuits were piling up and Apple were getting ready to launch the iPod which, when combined with the iTunes interface and store, was the first piece of technology to make having an entirely mp3 music collection an attractive option.
The iTunes and iPod revolution made music what it should have been in the modern age – plentiful, accessible and affordable – but it came several years too late. A huge gap in the market had emerged and been filled by the illegal file sharing services rather than the established industry it should have benefitted.
A resulting irony is that the music industry is declining at a time when popular demand for music is arguably at its greatest. Music downloads fit perfectly into the fast-moving lifestyle of the 21st century, people can now listen to any of their music in any location in high quality.
The internet looks set to change the way just about every industry sells their products to people. What surprised record labels and shops (as well as Hollywood and the newspapers among others) is how little value people placed on owning these products physically.
Although the record companies once provided the unrivalled listening experience of the LP, consumers have since proved themselves ready to sacrifice both its high fidelity audio and attractive packaging for the convenience of newer formats. Whoever decided CDs should be sold in those tacky plastic cases should be thoroughly ashamed.
Another sign the music industry ignored came in the 1980s when Sony (who themselves now account for almost a quarter of all record sales) developed the CD-ROM from the audio CD. With the emergence of the internet and mp3 in the following decade, copyright protected audio recordings could easily be compressed into computer data and shared with anyone, anywhere in the world.
Ten years on and file sharing has not gone away, but in this short space of time the music buying public have embraced downloading in its legal form as well. Services such as iTunes have sold billions of tracks and downloads are now counted in most music charts, however the music industry continues to see its profits fall.
To link this decline solely to illegal downloading is something of a simplistic view and, if the UK government gets its wish to punish music fans by kicking them off the net, potentially harmful to the music industry.
Radiohead are of one of many bands who have openly embraced the challenges of selling music in the digital age. At the time of Kid A‘s release, the band’s label put a lot of effort into marketing the album towards their sizeable online fanbase.
This publicity was insignificant when compared to the amount of people who heard the album by downloading it illegally and many feared poor sales as a result. Surprisingly, the album went to number one in several countries, including the USA for the first time in their career.
With the release of In Rainbows in 2007 the band chose to disregard record labels and physical sales, instead opting for a direct distribution model in which the fans chose the price of the album.
This was possibly the first album to be sold in a way that brought together the file sharers and the honest music buying public. There were no pirates, no thieves, only music fans.
Music released in this very direct fashion bypasses the old problem of albums being leaked as well as allowing fans to hear the release first and make up their own mind on its worth. Hopefully, the days of judging an album on the opinions of a handful of paid reviewers are numbered.
Although Radiohead’s model isn’t feasible for most other artists, they showed that free downloads aren’t something to be afraid of. The public have always had the right to a certain amount of free music; after all no one ever seemed too bothered about people taping songs off the radio or making a copy of a friend’s album.
If the music industry is to prosper in the 21st century it needs to compromise with the public and satisfy their desire for music in a way that is both profitable and convenient for everyone.
With Spotify announcing a partnership with 7digital and the prospect of Virgin Media’s subscription based unlimited download service, it appears as if the music industry is finally catching up and may soon offer an affordable alternative for prolific file sharers. If only someone had thought of all this ten years ago.