Wesley MurchisonFriday,25 July 2014

The Snap:

The last decade saw the rise of the digital download and the beginning of the end of the CD. Now, in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, we are in another technological transition. For the first time, the newest technology, streaming services, arrived before digital download stores had a chance to finish altering the landscape. CDs are still being made; if not sold in record shops, they are being bought at higher numbers than any other format, probably online.

The Download:

Nielsen SoundScan released sales figures for music earlier this month and news reports focused on the double-digit decline in digital downloads and CDs against the background of rising subscription sales to stream services like Spotify and Pandora. The real story, however, is not about what media format is the undisputed standard, or with the most sales, but that media format diversity is the new lay of the land. Nothing illustrates this fact better than an infographic by Indigo Boom – just look at all those pretty colors at the bottom, starting around 2004. Notice how, even with so many digital music options, CDs still capture the largest market share, with a modest — yet heartwarmingly nostalgic — rise of vinyl sales among collectors, DJs and audiophiles.

This brave new world gets cloudier still when one breaks down the various features offered by different services. Google Play and Amazon Prime, for example, both offer the ability to download music in addition to upload DRM-free Mp3 files from ripped CDs or purchased elsewhere to stream across devices. In contrast, eMusic, a pioneer in digital downloading, offers a monthly fee for a limited order of DRM-free songs for a particular subscription level. For instance, a basic membership gets a customer 24 songs a month for $11.99. Of course, prior to expanding their Prime membership to include music with video and free shipping, Amazon started its Mp3 download service for DRM-free tracks. That’s not to mention game-changer iTunes, even if its files are restricted.

Too often digital downloads, streaming services and cloud streaming are confused and treated as the same. Not to split hairs, but the difference is real and the technology contributes to the overall experience. One simple, if not reductionist, way to see these competing technologies is to compare them to real-world counterparts. The digital download, or DRM-free Mp3 file, is the CD of its day. Streaming services like Slacker and Pandora actually are online radios while Spotify focuses on being a one-stop music streaming shop.

For both casual and avid listeners, Spotify and Pandora offer an affordable way to get all or most of their music needs met. But for those old enough to remember a pre-Internet world, nothing will replace the high of buying a piece of art, be it a book, a painting on or a CD. For those folks, and I count myself among them, purchasing a file online is more cost-effective way to get those music kicks than a CD. True, being able to stream those files across multiple devices can add to the total price. However, there are free solutions: Google Play lets you load up to 20,000 songs and Amazon Prime has a 250-song ceiling.

The cyber and digital technology has fundamentally changed the music market. Never has music audiences had so many options, and it’s hard to see how any one product will be able to bankrupt the competition without adding comparable features. (Spotify Radio is a swat at Pandora, for example.) But that’s not all; other similar-yet-different platforms and business models are on the horizon. SoundCloud is more of a social media streaming service for individual songs and has just secured licensing from the major labels to avert a lawsuit. And is partnering with indie labels to help them connect with hardcore fans.

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Hat Tips:

New York Times, Indigo Boom, Image Credit: Flickr (converted to B&W)

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