Changing music distribution, part 2
A few days ago I wrote about changes in cd distribution. But of course that is not the biggest change the music industry faces. Digital distribution (iTunes and the like) are taking over physical distribution fast. According to data from Nielsen SoundScan, reported by the New York Times, digital download outsold traditional cd's for the first time in 2006. And I (very safely...) predict that this is only the beginning. People are no longer buying albums, but single pieces instead. This makes some sense of course. I own some albums with one good song and nothing else worth listening more than once. But...
... and this is a big but: I also own quite a few albums with some gems that really grew on me after listening to them a number of times. Pieces that I wouldn't have bought if I heard them only once. In a way, buying albums has for me always been a journey of discovery, being guided by the order selected by the artist - not by me. To hear it as it was meant to be heard. I would hate to see that go. And I'm not sure it will. I think albums will continue to be on offer. "Package download deals" if you like. But the experience will be different. Just like the experience changed when we changed from the vinyl-cover to the cd-booklet. (That booklet gave a whole new meaning to the words "fine print"... And now we're going to "no print".) Of course, digital distribution has its advantages as well, the main one being that you can listen to your music where ever you want.
But this shift does change things for the artist too. It is not just about a new medium, it's also about new contracts. Especially in pop and rock music, more and more acts will be signed on a 'song-basis' instead of an album-basis, as the article in the N.Y.T. implies. This has its repercussions on the budget as well. On the other hand: with today's equipment it is very well possible to produce professional recordings on a budget. That is.... as long as you don't count the producer and the engineer. Their jobs will change as well, but a top-producer or -engineer is and will remain expensive, and rightly so: their experience can not be replaced by machines or because musicians can afford a quality compressor. The fact that quality recording gear has become dirt-cheap does mean however that the artists can experiment and develop before offering their music to a distributor. And they should, since that quality has more or less become the norm.
It's everybody's guess where this will go. With the changes in technology going as fast as they currently are, even the emerging download-model of music distribution might turn out to be short lived. You might well stream the music to your cellphone without it being stored, for a few cents each time, who knows? On the other hand: vinyl is still around, and the cd is not going to go away for a while, so there will - I think - remain a market for album-length music even in rock as well. What do you think?
[Related post (part 1): Do you take McCartney with your espresso?]