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.


  1. Well put. It's such a silly debate in the end. And one that doesn't matter. It's not like coming to the conclusion that streaming is hurting download sales will stop streaming. So why have this conversation? I tend to think the conversation exists as a way for those of the old school to try to will things to go back to how they used to be. Which is as silly as the conversation itself. We already know what's going on, and the general trajectory, it's about as simple as you stated it. For the most part I just ignore it now. I listen to my two services (spotify and torch music) and I don't feel bad about it. In fact, I don't feel anything about it at all, except glad I can hear the desired songs when desired. Is this how it should be? Who the f**k cares..doesn't matter anymore cause it's just the way it is!

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  3. I don't think you meet too many people in the old school trying to will things back to the way they used to be - apart from the odd musician, I suppose - but you do meet lots of people who promote a vision of how it's all going to somehow settle down satisfactorily in the future. That is a fantasy.

  4. Well said indeed. This whole discussion has become very tedious, not least because of its circularity.

    From my own experience, different methods of delivery equate to different relationships with music. So, for example, I buy CDs of stuff I really like; buy vinyl copies of what I *love*; use Soundcloud to check out stuff that I might be interested in (and often will end up buying); buy digitally what I'm not 100 per cent sure about (because it's generally cheaper and thus slightly less of a risk); and use Spotify for the stuff I want to listen to but don't really have any compunction to own.

    Simple as that. Different delivery methods to match different experiences of the music. And we, the consumers, are the ones who are benefiting from all of this. Which is possibly why the 'industry' is worried...