Popular Consumption of Digital Media
The 21st century has seen a gargantuan revolution take place within the sector of musical consumption in which digital versions of music, such as the MP3, FLAC and WAV formats, etc., have supplanted the sales and general focus of the listenership of their physical counterparts, mainly the CD, which previously was the staple of musical communication.
In 1999, Napster, an online file-sharing item launched, and a preface in The Guardian comments “The digital music revolution started with Napster – the file-sharing service dreamt up by two teenagers in 1999. As a new film tells Napster’s story, Tom Lamont [author of the article] recalls the incredible sense of liberation he felt as a young music fan, one of millions happily plundering the world’s record collections…” The Guardian. The connotations of “plundering” are negative, as it appears people are taking what they like, for what they want.
Continuing the theme of digital sales gaining supremacy is K. Caulfield, who states “For the third time this year — and only the fourth time ever — the year-to-date total sales of digital albums have exceeded those of CDs” Billboard Online, 2014, which is testament to the fact that digital formats have sold more than CD’s in total; however this is not without its complications. Some countries, such as Japan, have higher CD sales than digital sales, as L. Britton comments “The figures are startling: CDs account for a massive 85% of all album sales in the country, compared to just 57.2% in the States and 64% in the UK” Vice Magazine, 2014; these may been as startling due to the context of digital sales overtaking physical sales in our societally-Western context and the arguable remoteness of Japanese culture to our own, but the fact remains that this is a strange anomaly I will explore later.
On the other hand, there are some that remain that the sale and consumption of the CD is still fundamental to appreciate music for a variety of reasons, relating to quality, nostalgia, the action and listening to albums whole, another concept which I will delve into. Another point of contemplation is that whilst the main argument resides with digital sales versus the sales of physical formats, there is another contender, which is streaming. Whilst technically there is no ownership of the music obtained via streaming digitally, a listener would pay monthly for a subscription with a streaming service to have access to hundreds of thousands of songs; this method has increased in popularity of the last few years, as Z.
Greenburg points out that “Most traditional measures of commercial success declined, from overall music sales (down 6.3%) to total album sales (down 8%) to CD sales (down 14%). Notable bright spots included vinyl (up 33%) and streaming (up 32%)” Forbes, 2014. This is evidence of the addition of a third established contender to the conflict between methods of musical consumption in the 21st century.
To begin with, digital formats have become a primary choice for many people living in this generation due to the ease of access from iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, etc., and are available with devices that have an internet connection (which is most these days, on modern mobile phones, computers, music playing devices with internet capabilities such as the iPod).
It is arguable that Napster, the aforementioned file-sharing service based on the internet was the beginning of the digital dissemination of music, and wildly succeeded, as J. Barlow states “It’s difficult to describe to people… how much material was suddenly available,” Guardian, 2013 in respect to the sudden emergence of massive online libraries of music becoming wildly available at an exponential rate; he even continues with “It was like that famous shot from 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the prehistoric monkey throws a bone in the air and it turns into a spaceship. Napster was a ridiculous leap forward” Guardian, 2013, which furthers the impact that Napster metaphorically had upon the dawn of the digital music revolution.
As Napster was a file-sharing network and that data was circulated free of charge, this was seen as an economically more viable option to customers who didn’t want to spend money on music, albeit damaging the industry itself and the sales of CD’s, which resonates to a more contemporary era, as B. Owsinski comments “Perhaps a larger problem is that the album, the cash cow of the industry (although less so than ever), has seen its sales decline for yet another year. Album sales for 2014 dipped to 289.4 million units, an 8.4% reduction from the prior year, although digital album sales fell a nominal 0.1% to 117.6 units from the previous year’s 117.7 million” Forbes Online, 2014. The continuation of digital music sales has caused the decline of physical CD sales, and as such it is argued that in Western society at least that digital sales and streaming has overtaken that of CD sales.
On the other hand, Japan and its regional culture have in some form resisted the move to digital music consumption. B. Sisario has stated in accordance with this, that “Around the world, the music business has shifted toward downloads and streaming. But in Japan, the compact disc is still king” New York Times, 2014, which pertains to the Japanese’s adamant affinity with CDs in spite of the fact that “CD sales… [are] falling worldwide” New York Times, 2014. This could relate to a clash between cultures: that of the “throw-away” Western culture (paying for streaming or digital sales without actually owning the product (streaming) or just owning a none-physical (arguably tangible and tactile) album compared to the Japanese culture of taking comfort and value within the physical existent, as H.
Oyamada cites in an interview with Vice Magazine, “One reason is that there still are many songs and albums not released on the digital format. Japanese people prefer things you can see or touch, something that exists in real life” Vice Magazine, 2014, which is a generalised overview of mass cultural thoughts within a wider Japanese society which counters the Western subconscious consumerist thought, and more specifically, its attitudes towards owning CDs as an actual item to put in a CD player or computer to play, to save, to look at the album art, etc., rather than just a digital file to transfer to a portable media player. In this case, the convenience of the digital format is overtaken by physical formats’ tactile characteristics and the morality of owning a physical item over something digital.
Loefah, the owner of an electronic music label, furthers this argument by claiming “You can viably frame a vinyl cover and put it on the wall. It’s also got all these personal associations – when you take a vinyl out of your record collection it takes you back to when you bought it, where you were in your life when you were listening to that shit when it was brand new…” Factmag, 2013. The personal associations that some individuals obtain with a physical format are intimate and personal; something that digital media cannot compete with.
On the contrary, physical formats still have a place within society. As well as the aforementioned argument of the Japanese still latched onto an interest and utilisation of the CD format, other commentators have declared various other physical formats reflect of the artist and that more time and care have gone into artists releasing their works on physical formats, as T. Lea declares “In 2013, anybody can release something digitally, and artists know this – it takes a whole other level of commitment to the music to spend the amount of time and money that manufacturing a vinyl record costs, and that’s something that’s also recognised, consciously or subconsciously, by listeners” Fact Magazine Online, 2013, which relates to a mental currency applied by the listenership to the physical value of the album, from conception through to its physical establishment; of which it’s corporeal existence carries more value than a digital counterpart, and that a resonance of artist dedication towards his or hers audience is materialised through the construction of the physical album which counters the lack of connection between artist and audience that digital media appears to convey.
This concept of tangibility is furthered by D. Bakula, who states “CD sales always spike in the fourth quarter because you just can’t wrap a download. As Peoples also notes, up-and-coming bands still like to hand out or sell CDs at gigs rather than merely direct users to a URL. “Market research shows people buy CDs out of habit…” Mashable, 2013. This elaborates on a personal connection that is created when artists have physical versions of their work available, and that when the audience purchases this, they gain an affinity with the artist via the existent product. On a smaller note, the ease of selling CDs at live shows at venues is arguably easier than showing or conducting an audience towards an online website or store where the music is available to purchase in digital formats.
The age of different listeners also impacts upon whether they purchase physical or digital formats as well, as P. Williams declares, “People get used to a certain way. In the past the shift has been physical to physical but now it’s different; it’s physical to virtual… Generally, the older audience prefers to buy the physical format. That doesn’t mean everyone, there are some who will download” BBC, 2012. This contributes to the still evident and potent amount of CD sales, however it can be argued that in the future as generations progress, this will no longer be the case as the generation which was born into consuming digital formats will be the predominant one, and as such CDs in the future may no longer be on sale.
T. Wasserman on Mashable lists various other reasons as to why CD’s still have a place within modern society, such as the fact that “People still listen to a lot of their music in their cars, which are still adapting to the digital changes. “As long as cars have CD players, there’s a market for them,” says Crupnick (SVP of industry analysis for The NPD Group)” Mashable, 2013. Whilst some models of cars have built in systems accommodating digital music players, it is true that most cars still have CD players, and as such, when people drive, it is the most preferred format.
Another physical format, which is the preferred medium of listening by many, is also the vinyl. One argument for their utility in contemporary society is that the audio is warmer and arguably analogue, as A. Kozinn notes “There were always record collectors who disdained the compact disc, arguing that an LP’s grooves yielded warmth and depth that the CD’s digital code could not match” New York Times, 2013, which is a signifier of the competition in audio quality shared by the two physical formats, and some audiophiles will undoubtedly choose vinyl. For UK sales statistics of vinyl, the NME declares, “UK vinyl sales have seen a 78 per cent increase in the first quarter of 2013, according Official Record Store Chart data” NME, 2013.
J. E. Gould states statistics for the return of vinyl in the USA: “The LP… is in the midst of an unlikely comeback. Bucking the trend towards technologically driven music consumption, vinyl has posted eight consecutive years of sales growth in the U.S., and sales were up 46 percent in the first eight months of 2014 compared to last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, compared to a 19 percent decline in CD sales” The Financialist, 2014. By declaring that the trend of musical consumption is technological, and arguably digital in this circumstance, and the “bucking” of it by vinyl, Gould argues that there is an unquestionable revival of physical formats and that they are widely consumed; a trend which will increase for the foreseeable future.
However the impact of the vinyl is contested by some. J. Sakamoto asserts, “To paraphrase Mark Twain, the resurrection of vinyl records has been greatly exaggerated,” says Steve Kane, president of Warner Music Canada.
“Vinyl sales account for a low single-digit contribution to our gross sales and will probably remain a niche product,” he adds, “but it will be a very active and passionate niche.” Star, 2015. The detraction of vinyl’s impact by implying its subordination and marginalisation by Sakamoto’s statement implies that it will not retain its climb within sales, nor its position of zenith as it obtained in earlier decades, however the argument allowed small comfort in terms of classifying vinyl as targeted by some audiences by describing it as “niche”; implying it’s a very concentrated target audience who buy vinyl.
In conclusion, it seems that CDs and other physical formats are at the moment being subdued by their digital counterparts, for the reasons of ease of access (files being online, faster and easier purchase without having to leave the house, sometimes music being free via file sharing, etc.) and convenience. Some individuals have also seen physical formats such as the CD and vinyl as becoming archaic and anachronistic within modern society, and have seen digital mediums to be the way forward.
However the fact that some people are still buying CDs and vinyl means that physical formats will stay in the music market for a little while longer at least, and that even though their sales have reduced somewhat dramatically over recent years, G. Taylor states “Digital albums grew strongly and singles sales hit a new record. Music fans are now streaming billions of songs from new services enabled by record labels… However, the quality of our music and digital innovation by UK labels means we have excellent potential for domestic growth and to increase our share of the global music market” BBC, 2012, which takes comfort in the fact that even though physical sales of music may be declining, musical growth, talent, exposure and audiences are ever increasing.