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Monday, October 21, 2013

Digital sales go down. It's the music economy, stupid.

There's a piece in the New York Times about digital music sales, which have dipped over the last year. There's the usual debate about whether things would be healthier if they didn't have to compete with free streaming services. The paper frames it this way:

Whether streaming has had any demonstrable effect on sales remains intensely debated, though. Do Spotify and YouTube, which let users choose the songs they play, cannibalize sales, or lead listeners to songs they may buy later? And do Pandora and other radiolike providers — Apple introduced a similar feature, iTunes Radio, last month — compete with sales at all, or just with radio?
I'm tired of this kind of thing. If people on the financial pages were as binary in their reading of the market for cars or pork bellies they would be called on it.

Ever since the arrival of digital delivery the people who write in business and technology sections and financial analysts have proposed a neat migration of the habits of buying physical product to the inevitable digital future. You move it all from this column and you put it in that one. And it's not just the money men. David Byrne was saying something similar a week or so ago.

Surely we've seen enough by now to suggest that it doesn't work like that.

Technology doesn't just change habits. It disrupts them.

Does YouTube cannibalise sales or lead listeners to songs they may buy later? It does both. Does Pandora compete with sales or with radio? It does both. And do these two services just swell the multitude of different pipes down which music travels, leading people to form the opinion that recorded music is something that they no longer have to find because it's very busy finding them? Well, yes, take my unscientific word for it, they do.

As a result of all this and incessant multichannel pop radio and music leaking out from every fissure between TV, films, sport, advertising and retail, much of it placed there by highly paid professionals whose job it is to make people feel that they ought to own it, does the average Joe or Joanna feel that recorded music is worth less money than they thought it was worth twenty years ago? Well, yes, they do.

Is this all that much different from what's happening in newspapers? No, interestingly enough.