music is math…

Music Industry

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.

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Warp is 20

Warp is one of the great British independent labels, alongside names such as Factory and Beggars Banquet, rising up from its humble beginnings in a Sheffield record shop to producing both successful and groundbreaking music.

Warp has released some of the most important records in the history of electronic music, from Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works: Volume II’ to Boards of Canada’s breakthrough ‘Music has the Right to Children’. As well as electronica and dance, Warp has recently signed several “indie” bands and even released films (including two BAFTA winning works; ‘This is England’ and a surreal short film by satirist Chris Morris.

It is the curse of independent record labels that, no matter how great their contribution to our music and culture, a small survey of people on the street will probably draw mostly blank expressions. For 20 years Warp have been putting out some of the best music around whilst commercially remaining in the shadows of the more powerful major labels.

So, in 20 years Warp has given us an astonishing collection of groundbreaking music, not to mention a website from which to download the tracks legally and DRM-free. After two decades of promoting some of the best in alternative and creative music and film, Warp is very much deserving of praise this year.

1. Aphex Twin – Blue Calx

A beautiful extract from Richard D. James’ ‘Selected Ambient Works Volume II’, released in 1994. James is, like several others on Warp, among the most talented pioneers of electronica. Combining his knowledge of electronics with a curiously dark creative side, Aphex Twin is a powerful musical force.

2. Boards of Canada – Turquoise Hexagon Sun

Although Warp have a habit of signing “different” artists, Boards of Canada go beyond merely being different. As this song demonstrates, BoC somehow blend psychedelic dance beats with strangely nostalgic melodies to produce a truly individual sound.

3. LFO – LFO

Warp’s first release to chart in the top 20. A classic techno tune from the height of the UK rave culture that the label was an instrumental part of.

4. Grizzly Bear – Two Weeks

20 years on and things sound a little different. Surprisingly, this American indie band are signed to Warp. Although it’s a long way from Aphex Twin’s ambient techno, Grizzly Bear are still an intensely creative band making beautiful music in more traditional ways. Guitars and vocal harmonies haven’t sounded this fresh for a long time.


The future of the LP

Although there has not yet been any official confirmation from the band, fansites and message boards are buzzing with the apparent news that Radiohead are on the verge of releasing an EP of new material.

Radiohead – These are my Twisted Words

Fansite At Ease published the leaked track a few days ago along with some coded hints at an imminent release.  The song sounds genuine (an experiment in instrumental Krautrock with Yorke’s recognisable voice entering towards the end) but we do not know for certain when it will officially see the light of day.

Whether or not the ‘Wall of Ice’ EP will materialise, Radiohead seem certain to push the boundaries of the musical establishment again by ditching the album in favour of a shorter format.

Recent interviews suggest Radiohead’s latest creative output will end up on shorter EPs,  with Jonny Greenwood adding that “no one knows how to release music any more, including us”.  With more bands releasing their albums in unconventional downloadable formats, there is no real reason to be restricted by the old needs of CDs and LPs.

In some ways, this is a shame.  However, when the album dies it will only die commercially and the achievements of recording artists over the last 50 years will live on no matter what they’re being played on.

The iPod doesn’t stop people listening to albums, it simply makes playing a greater variety of songs easier and more appealing.  While the album’s death at the hands of the internet might seem like the end of the world to some ageing rock fans, two things should be considered.

One is that classic albums will live on in the form they were meant to be appreciated, just as people still listen to classical symphonies or Elvis Presley singles.  Secondly, artists should be putting out music in a current and relevant format in order to get their sound over to the listener in a natural way.

Perhaps new bands will feel less pressured into filling out their material with album tracks.  As well as favouring bands, customers won’t have to pay $10 for a few tracks they like and several they don’t.

As the success of Spotify has shown, customers don’t mind not owning the music they listen to when there is almost always internet access to allow streaming.  With the trend of people hearing music buffered by advertising messages increasing, shorter releases seem to make sense in the 21st century.

The artistic quality of whatever replaces the album won’t necessarily be lower.  Just compare the great albums coming out in the late 60s and early 70s with today’s efforts.  The albums of The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young weren’t just great because they were recorded by geniuses (although that helps), they were great because they were put out on a relevant and fresh format.

In reality, little had changed in the way the music industry operated in the last 50 years until quite recently.  Maybe it’s time for a change.