Music In The Digital Age
- Mark Robertson
- 2 October 2009
Developing technology has increased our access to music, books, TV and films, allowing us to get what we want, whenever we want it, and usually for free. With the music industry struggling to combat illegal downloads, there’s a rush to use internet technology to the benefit of artists, labels and music consumers alike. But will services like Spotify actually make a difference? Mark Robertson runs down the options for enjoying music in the digital age and asks, with consumers calling the shots, will the musicians ever survive?
To paraphrase the Creme Egg adverts, when it comes to music, how do you hear yours? Streaming over the internet? Nicking stuff from torrents on the web? A bag full of goodies from Fopp? Crates of obscure vinyl from your local specialist emporium?
Hair-splitting over which has more inherent value: a piece of vinyl in your hands or an MP3 on your mobile phone is a moot point now; the bottom line is we want to hear music when and how we please, without worrying too much about the details. After all, by the time any technology makes it into our lives we know it has a limited shelf life: as one platform – vinyl, CD, Minidisc, MP3 – arrives, another is lined up in the wings, waiting to take its place.
As with all genuine commercial innovations in the web 2.0 world – Love Film, BBC’s iPlayer, even match.com – the future success of artists and labels relies less on their marketing message and more on their methods of delivery. When Spotify arrived with us in 2008 it was immodestly expected to change our lives, much like iPods and other portable music players were supposed to almost ten years ago. Today, the standalone music player is on the way out, with mobile phones becoming the place not only to play, but also to download music. The song remains the same, it’s only the player that changes.
So what are the options afforded to you to find, listen to and keep music? The first port of call is those services that offer the chance to listen online, but not download music. Spotify (www.spotify.com) is the current site du jour offering free unlimited listening to their 3.5 million tracks as long as you don’t mind adverts piped between your tunes. If you can’t hack the ads then there’s a premium subscription for £9.99 a month. Similarly, one-time rebel Napster has gone legit, offering a £5 a month subscription for access to their catalogue.
Last.fm is the king of online radio: a social networking and music site that popularised the ‘if you like this, you’ll love this’ system of listening and recommending. More generally, there are thousands of straight-forward online radio stations offering streams of pretty much every possible kind of music. Start somewhere like www.streamfinder.com or www.radio-directory.com.
As far as buying and downloading music goes, iTunes remains the daddy of the retailers, offering over 10 million tracks for download. The likes of Amazon (amazon.co.uk) and HMV (www.hmv.com/downloads) have less comprehensive catalogues but do offer downloads without digital rights management (DRM), giving users more options for moving their music collections about. iTunes will soon be offering similar DRM-free download options in the UK, albeit with a higher price tag.
Aside from the big guns, there are several excellent specialist sites offering downloads by the track or album like 7digital (www.7digital.com), Bleep (bleep.com), Boomkat (www.boomkat.com), and local site tentracks (www.tentracks.co.uk). eMusic (www.emusic.com), which bills itself as the ‘indie iTunes’, offers a number of tracks for a monthly subscription starting at £9.99 for 24 songs, just 42p a track, and there’s a similar deal to be had at www.mp3.com.
The final option is not one we endorse, but recognise is a huge part of web activity: illegal downloading. Bit torrents are popular file-sharing tools that allow users to download large files by accessing the data on several different computers simultaneously. Thanks to their proliferation across the internet, a few quick torrent searches can turn up pretty much anything from TV series to the entire discography for a band. The reliability and quality of these files is variable, however, since there’s no central administrator checking who’s uploading what to the file-sharing network.
Every few months a new court case comes up regarding illegal downloads: the first high-profile case was against Napster back in 2000 when Metallica took umbrage at their music being shared on the network and took founder Shawn Fanning to court. The latest court wrangling involves Pirate Bay, a Swedish site that tracks bit torrent files for download. It has been dubiously defended as a piece of public art and not just an index of where to go to infringe the copyright of musicians, TV producers and software developers. But this wasn’t an argument that stood up in court and in April this year the founders were handed down one-year prison sentences and a fine of over £2 million. The defendants have appealed and the site continues to operate.
The long-term picture for the music industry is that a huge source of income – the sale of CDs – is dwindling. In its place are new income streams: paid-for downloads and royalties from sites like Spotify. The problem is the two don’t tally up. If an artist gets £1.50 from the sale of a ten-track album on CD, they might get 80p from the same download sale on iTunes, but only 5p for an album play on Spotify. English indie outfit Friendly Fires told NME this month that they reckoned they were making 0.5p royalty per song play on the service. Which means, to recoup the kind of same revenue, they’d need to have the same album played 30 times. Other reports have put the royalty rate nearer 0.04p, which would mean literally thousands of plays to recoup the same sum.
In the short term this won’t affect us consumers, as new music will still be appearing, but in the long term there may be fewer people making new music as there will be less money around for new artists to survive on.
Spotify won’t kill off CDs completely, and there will always be people wanting to have a physical product, as proven by the healthy trade in collectible vinyl. The question remains, however: do more options mean more great music?
In theory, yes: if you know what you’re looking for Spotify is ideal, but try to find to new music on the service and it becomes more problematic. There are other sites that will sate your appetite for new sounds, but the romantic notion of walking into a record shop and hearing music that will change your life, à la High Fidelity, might soon become a nostalgic memory. The chances of recreating these rare, but not extinct, revelations online depend entirely on just how determined, dedicated and thoughtful you are. The options exist, but in the absence of the hands-on, personal element, and given our growing unwillingness to pay for it, we might find ourselves increasingly cast adrift from the music we love.