Where To Next For Digital Music?

Photo: CC // chrishimself

Since the end of the golden era of CDs in the late 1980s, the music industry has experienced an unprecedented rate of change: from the first legal download (Aerosmith's 'Head First', 1994), to the first mp3 player (the Rio player, 1998), to the rise and quick demise of Napster (1999-2001) and the enormous growth of iTunes and mobile content, it's been all artists, labels and music fans can do just to keep up.

In the last twenty years, almost everything in music, from the way we buy and consume it, to the way artists create and disseminate it, has fundamentally changed. These days, no one's even sure if we need to own music anymore.

'People want access on demand, and many no longer want to pay to own a limited number of records forever when they can move on to the next one in seconds,' writer and indie music industry veteran Wyndham Wallace wrote in a much discussed recent article for The Quietus. 'They don't want to shell out the same for a song that they once did because the music is now sadly disposable: they may never listen to it again so its value to them has been reduced.'

The devaluing of music in the last two decades isn't only to do with money: it's also about the excitement and anticipation people feel about getting and listening to new music.

'I don't think people have the same excitement waiting for their file to download as they did in opening a new record or CD,' band manager Jody White, whose clients include Warpaint and Royal Bangs, says. 'However, I think there is now some added pressure on artists and labels to release great albums since people can buy individual songs––which is a good thing.'

In the space of a decade or so, the idea of buying a CD has for many people become a totally outmoded idea, something 'akin to using a typewriter or riding a horse to work,' says Sonia Sharma, an associate at the law firm Maddocks. 'As broadband and mobile access become ubiquitous, simply being able to access music anywhere anytime is the key.'

Soon enough, some analysts say, the idea of owning even digital music will go the way of the dodo. Whereas a few years ago the debate about the future of music centred on digital vs. physical––the desire to own something you could actually hold in your hands––the major players in the music industry are anticipating a time in the not too distant future where owning copies of music, whether physical or digital, won't be necessary, or even desirable. But what does this mean for artists?

A couple of weeks ago, to much fanfare, Apple released their long awaited iCloud service. The iCloud, which will start with a US release this Spring, follows Amazon's Cloud Player and Google's music locker service, and allows people to store their music collection (and other files) on the web, and then download this collection to multiple (mostly Apple) devices.

But the thing that most caught people in the music industry's attention wasn't iCloud. It was the announcement, on the same day, of iTunes Match, a new service that scans people's music libraries and matches any content that wasn't bought on the iTunes store––including pirated music and songs ripped from CDs––and replaces them on the person's iCloud account with legitimate, Apple-approved copies. As some have pointed out, iTunes Match will likely allow people to replace whole libraries of pirated songs with licensed copies––for only $25 a year.

That $25, it's reported, will be split with copyright holders––after Apple takes their cut. While some are excited that Apple, with its considerable might, has found a way to monetize illegal music, others are concerned about how much money will end up in artists' pockets. Many, like Wallace, cite the example of Spotify, the increasingly popular European-based streaming service, which last year was reported to have paid Lady Gaga $167 for 1 million plays of 'Poker Face.' Certainly, in terms of money, cloud-based platforms look a whole lot better for consumers and big companies than they do for artists.

But maybe we're missing the point. As Native Digital's Ned Dwyer points out, perhaps recorded music itself was just a staple of artists' income for a certain period––and now that time has passed.

'I think back to what it was like to be a musician in the age of Mozart. Music was generally something that could only be listened to when performed by a live musician. At that point people as talented as Mozart would tour the world and play for patrons of the arts, sometimes for a lot of money. Compositions would be dedicated to rich patrons––that was how they monetized their work. At the same time lesser musicians would play for smaller venues and audiences or just for their family and friends. Yet music still existed in a variety of forms.

'I think people forget that we don't need to sell recordings of music to have a thriving music culture.'

The ease with which people can access recorded music now means, on the one hand, people are listening to music than ever before––as Wallace writes, 'it streams into homes, it pours forth in cafés, it trickles past in the street as it leaks from shops and restaurants.' But the sheer amount of music we have access to means that music is also more transient now, heard in fleeting patches, passed over quickly in search of the next thing. And it's these trends that are motivating many bands to do things differently when it comes to their music.

Many acts are now focusing on collectible items––vinyl and merch––in an attempt to give their fans something they'll really want to own and return to, and, of course, actually make some money at the same time.

'With the ever expanding e-commerce sector and the right social marketing, bands and artists can now make some good coin form merchandise all year round,' says Marty Salmon, director of For Artists Only, an eclectic Sydney outfit that combines music and fashion. 'Physical components are becoming more of a novelty as the world becomes more digital every day. Record labels, having realised that punters have stopped buying CDs, now need to entice the sale with some sort of value add product.'

Other bands are taking advantage of the ease with which music can be made and disseminated to connect with their fans directly. Jody White uses the example of Deerhunter, and in particular their prolific singer Bradford Cox, who have released a dizzying stream of new music from the band and side projects like Atlas Sound and Lotus Plaza via their blog.

'They would literally make a track in a hotel room or on the road, and give it away for free through their blog. I think maybe they've become a little too busy now, which is understandable given their success, but their approach was really creative and did a lot for the band,' White says.

Between the artists and the fans, labels are starting to catch up. 'Up until relatively recently the labels have made it hard to buy their music online––they just weren't keeping up with the opportunities,' Dwyer says. 'It has only recently become easier to purchase and consume music and other media through online channels. Now we're seeing people who have been pirating content for years returning to paid media because it's easy, it's accessible and you are getting quality content. People will pay for quality content if it's presented in the right way.'

Sharma agrees. 'There will always be a percentage of people who acquire content illegally, but I believe most consumers would jump at the chance to acquire music in an easy, fuss free and legitimate way,' she says, citing US video-on-demand and DVD mailout operator NetFlix as a successful example, and pointing to the rise of mobile content as the another way for artists and labels to cash in. 'Ultimately improved access to content is a great thing for artists. Music companies and artists who are able to think innovatively and offer unique customer experiences will come out on top.'

What do you think? How have these changes affected you as a listener or artist? Are you excited about the new cloud services, or do you still want to own your music?

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