Staring at my shelves of CDs and vinyl (recently culled – It was vicious and I do feel a bit reborn, thanks for asking) I was wondering if the shiny new world of always available, always on, always there and almost always free music that has been unleashed in recent times via illegal (file sharing) and legal (Spotify) means has fundamentally changed they way we get “into” music. I was looking at certain CDs and picked out a couple that I hadn’t heard in a while (probably a number of years) and got an urge to give them a spin (the albums, incidentally, were REM’s Reveal and New Order’s Technique).
Nothing strange in this, but it set of a chain of thought that reminded me of a term that I haven’t heard of for a while – “it’s a grower”. This term was given to albums that might take a bit of time to get under your skin and become an essential part of your collection. I think this new landscape has changed this concept forever.
I guess it is all down to a couple of things – what we invest in music (i.e. our money) and the mindset to repeat play something. The former has certainly reduced for the vast majority of people as access to new music has exploded – no longer do you need to wait for a track that your mate has raved about to advantageously appear on the radio or (naughty) be given to you on a cassette or by other means. You can pretty much find anything on the web for free now – Spotify and MySpace has made this the way ahead. But this mass availability may have eroded the latter of my points. In the old days, if you spent the equivalent of around £20 on an album/CD, you probably gave it a while to impress you. This is where tracks/albums/artists that were “growers” had a chance. If the album/CD in question really didn’t do it for you, it was off to Record and Tape Exchange to try to get some cash back for it.
But what of the new Warholesque world? Will time-poor people with almost immediate access to millions of songs give something a chance? I’m not so sure. I think that they will probably move on to the next thing. Maybe it fits with the modern world – I, for one, love the new landscape – I was never really an albums person and used to make loads of mix tapes. Today the best way of getting “in someone’s head” is more than likely to be included in an advertising campaign, be on MTV/radio loads and even aligned to a brand. Maybe it is a good thing; I personally have loads of albums that have maybe two or three good tracks and seven fillers – people going forward are just not going to put up with this. Will it push quality up? maybe, maybe not.
But the cream will always rise – it just might not grow in future.
It seems we are a bit closer to a time when we don’t buy music to keep anymore, but rent it to listen to when we want. Apparently the record charts/pop charts/hit parade/toppermost of the poppermost will soon recognise data from streaming services such as Spotify. This is a HUGE and seismic change. The charts were so central to music sales a few years ago and reflected recent releases. Now things could get a lot more volatile. Let’s delve a bit deeper into why this is such a big deal.
One of the main reasons for this blog is to look back at how we bought music and cast the view forward to guess how things will be. I firmly believe that we are quickly heading towards a future when the majority of music will be consumed via streaming services of one form or the other. There may be ways to buy music “for keeps” but for the vast majority of people, the days of having racks in the living room with LPs/CDs in are pretty much yesterday’s news.
Why? well, behind every romantic notion of collecting music, the impact on society of singles and LPs/CDs etc is a business of selling music. For most products and services the way of selling more is by advertising/marketing/PR (I’m a particular fan of the latter 😉 ) But the music industry has always had another method of promotion.
The pop charts.
Since the fifties, getting a record on the pop charts meant the domino effect of free publicity. Records on the charts receive more plays on the radio and on TV. This leads to more sales etc… you know the story. As someone who used to work in record shops and market stalls, I have heard all sorts of stories about how records were “hyped” up the charts. You see, back in the day (I mean before mass communication/broadband/the internet) certain record shops earned a status known as “chart return”. This meant that these chosen shops had a system installed that meant that when they sold a record/CD that data was logged with the official chart company of the day (people of a certain age will remember “Gallup”). Now, not every record shop had this chart return system and to prevent “corruption” the charts were made up of data from a random sample of what these chart return shops scanned in. Still, I recall hearing tales of all sorts of “interesting” and downright dodgy practices employed to try to rig the charts. I’ve heard of record sales reps offering boxes of free product to chart return shops for a few extra “sales” being put through chart return systems randomly during the week (it couldn’t be done all at once – it would have been picked up – a bit like dodgy betting patterns). I’ve also heard stories of record companies/managers of bands paying people to go and buy 5-10 copies of a single from each chart return shop in the area. And ever wondered why certain shops used to sell singles for 99p? Did you really think that they were profitable at that price? No, not really… they were given boxes of the things for free, because the record company knew that if a single made the charts, sales of the associated album would increase…. and since the 1970s, albums are where money has been made.
This isn’t the first overhaul of the charts – a few years ago paid downloads were (rightly) added to chart figures. And I’m not sure what became of the chart return shop. I assume that today pretty much every sale of a single/album could be logged via the web and the hyping of records up the charts has probably become trickier. Who knows? I certainly don’t. But this idea that songs streamed from a site like Spotify will be counted on the charts seems to mark the end for them in my eyes. I realise that the charts have become less important in recent years, but they still told us something about what the masses were listening to.
But adding streaming to the count….? Surely this opens a whole new can of worms. Will the track have to be played all the way through to count? won’t we start getting “song spam” where records are “hyped” by people opening accounts and then continuously repeating the same track? And thinking about it, as everyone is getting linked up, why not create a chart that reports on when you play a song at home? Having “always on” internet should mean that in the future every track you play on any device could be logged for a chart…. actually, thinking about it, it sounds pretty obvious.
And this gives record companies even less reason to release physical formats….
HMV will announce its full-year results later and it is expected that they will be near the top end of estimates. Like-for-like sales at its HMV UK and Ireland shops were up 4.3pc in the 16 weeks ending April 25 – which seems at odds with what is happening on the high street in general and particularly with music and entertainment retail.
However, HMV is now the last remaining music retail chain on the high street and bought 23 (profitable) stores from the collapsed Zavvi chain. Simply put, if you aren’t a downloader you are more likely than ever to buy your entertainment from HMV. Look back a few years beyond recent problems and it is shocking to remember the choice we used to have on the high street – Our Price, Tower Records, Virgin/Zavvi and Woolworths were all around as competitors to HMV – now they’ve all gone.
So, perhaps one strong high street music/entertainment chain is sustainable for now. And HMV is also looking at diversification – a smart and necessary move. A couple of days ago they announced a plan to open a chain of arthouse cinemas above its stores. This is potentially a clever move – although people now have DVD systems as a norm at home and many have 42″ screens and surround-sound AV set-ups, many people still like to view movies on very big screens. Clever.
Going forward HMV could strenghthen its position as the only music/entertainment chain left on the high street, offering physical formats to those that still want to buy them whilst offering entertainment “experiences” that you can’t get down a broadband line. I expect more in-store gigs and exclusive digital offerings. How about remixes that you have to visit the store to recieve… charging stations for MP3 players… maybe HMV will prove survival of the fittest is still alive and well.
Yesterday the guys behind The Pirate Bay (note the name) were each sentenced to a year in prison. For those that aren’t aware of The Pirate Bay, it acts as the “middle man” for those wishing to (mainly) illegally download music and films by providing “torrent” technology. I’m not expert, but my understanding is that torrents work on a peer-to-peer principle. That is, I allow some of my hard drive to be “open” where I can place files that others can essentially copy on to their drives. Those sharers will also allow a portion of their drive to be “open” as well. Therefore, nothing is hosted by The Pirate Bay – it is merely facilitating the connection for the download. The really clever bit about torrent technology means that you can download files in smaller, broken down parts – this speeds up the time it takes to download the file as the torrent software will intelligently look for the fastest way to download the file from multiple sources. So, you might look to download the latest single by a band. You would go to The Pirate Bay (it’s one of many, by the way, but the most famous), look up the song and request it. It would find the file (if it is available on another user’s PC – that PC needs to be on and connected to the internet with the torrent client running) and if it is available, you click on the link and download it. The more people that are hosting the file, the easier and quicker it will (probably) be to get.
So, taking whether illegally copying music is right or wrong out of the equation, is it really that surprising that these guys have been sent down and asked to pay over £2 million in compensation? I’m not surprised in the least. Some of the comments I’ve read over the past couple of days have been pretty jaw-dropping. Mainly along the lines of this being an unbelievable miscarriage of justice. Really? Do you really think that? One comment I saw along the lines of “they are just like Google – providing links to content – they are just a directory!”. Erm, sorry, but OK, Google certainly points you to illegal/questionable content from time-to-time, but I don’t think that was their business model. The Pirate Bay, however, operated with that idea explicitly in mind. They knew what they were doing. Surely at the very least they are accomplices in the crime of stealing music. Say I Lent a car to a couple of mates who I pretty much suspected were going to rob a bank. They then robbed a bank using the car as a getaway vehicle and the police traced the car to me. Now, I was pretty certain that they were going to use the car in a crime. Would I be fearful or being prosecuted as being compliant in the crime? You bet I would…
As well as taking the moral standpoint out of the argument, I have no doubt that this will make absolutely no difference to whether people will continue to illegally copy music files or use similar sites to The Pirate Bay to do so. None whatsoever. Likewise if I was arrested for lending my car to some mates who then used it to rob a bank, I doubt it would stop others from robbing banks. The future of marketing/selling music isn’t the argument here. We all realise that will change radically and it is only due to the size and power of the worldwide music industry coupled with the public at large getting used to the fundamental change that has meant that things are still a little up in the air. I clearly recall the moment that I discovered MP3. It was in 1997 during my previous life as an IT manager. One of the guys on the team knew I was into music and downloaded a 5MB file of a single I liked there and then and played it to me. I realise that audiophiles will argue about the compression of an MP3 file versus uncompressed vinyl or not-as-compressed CD audio, but to 99% of the population, MP3 sounds as good, if not better than a CD bought in a shop. It was immediately apparent to me that such a ridiculously easy and convenient way of copying and moving top-quality music files around the planet was going to fundamentally change the way we buy (or not) music and listen to it. There was obviously no turning back. I remembered the “home taping is killing music” campaign of the 1980’s, but transferring an LP or CD to tape was never going to really dent sales. But MP3 was different. I heard a whole industry start to creak there and then.
Since that moment back in 1997, we have seen broadband become available to the masses while speeds have gone up and prices for broadband in the home go down. We have also seen the “music system” that most people own change from a stack Hi-Fi or portable “ghetto blaster” to a music player no bigger (and sometime a lot smaller) that a packet of cigarettes that can contain around 6,000 CDs. And people look at my all funny when they see my CD and vinyl collection taking up most of a room. “Why not burn them to MP3 and sell them?” is their perfectly reasonable argument. See what’s happening?
People will always want to listen to music and now it has become easier and more convenient than ever. Where convenience goes on the internet, various peddlers of services sprout up to make it even easier. But a fundamental shift in behaviour does not make everyone exempt from prosecution. We should not hold up these self-confessed “pirates” as a cause celebre to move things along with the marketing of music. We’ll get there, but there are far too many people with too many financial interests for it to happen overnight.