An Aug. 15 report from Strategy Analytics, Inc. predicts that the amount of money spent on physical music media like CDs and vinyl records will be surpassed by money spent on streaming and download services this year in the United States.
That’s right: We Americans will spend more in places like Spotify and iTunes than in good old-fashioned record stores this year. It’s a big turnaround from the early days of MP3s, when record labels feared that file-sharing would bankrupt the music industry.
In fact, consumers proved quite willing to pay for music online once they were given the chance and it was just as easy as pirating. As often happens, Apple epitomizes the new paradigm with its iTunes, but there are plenty of other download services, from eMusic to Amazon. Subscription services have proven successful as well, with listeners paying every month for the right to listen to giant music libraries whenever they want.
I remember my very first CD: We Can’t Dance by Genesis, which I got for Christmas in … must have been 1991, since that’s the year it came out. I also got my very own portable CD player that year, so you can imagine how many times I spun that particular disc in my room rather than dipping into my dad’s collection.
Back then, a single CD cost more than a month’s subscription to Spotify’s Premium or MOG’s Primo services. Then again, you have to keep paying every month in order to keep listening; a CD is yours forever. The audio quality of a CD is also top-notch, while streaming services are limited to a maximum of 320Kbps — certainly good enough for most ears, but sensitive audiophiles will tell you it’s just awful, awful.
Download services don’t save you much, if anything, over the cost of a CD. You do get to keep the files forever, but the audio quality issue is still there. At least you don’t need a constant, reliable Internet connection.
And of course there’s just something satisfying about holding a physical product in your hand. The case is yours, the disc is yours, the booklet with liner notes and pictures is yours.
Well, kinda. Music and movies you buy aren’t really “yours” in the sense that you can do whatever you want with them. We’ve all seen the FBI warning about copying or showing movies publicly. What we really buy is a license to play that music or movie for ourselves, personally. The fact that you can copy and share and edit music from a CD fairly easily doesn’t mean you’re legally allowed to.
In that sense, streaming services actually represent what we’re actually buying a little better. We get a license to play as much music as we want for a limited time, kind of like feeding a jukebox to play one song at a time. We don’t get possession of anything physical; even if you download songs for playing in offline mode, they can only be played by one application — the streaming program that downloaded them.
So is the music industry happy with the transition to streaming? Sure. It costs less to have a digital file on a server than to store thousands of CDs. They make less money than they used to (and artists make a lot less) but it’s still better than piracy.
I’ll tell you about my own digitally downloadable music when you follow @CitizenjaQ on Twitter.