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Technology Trends: Where Are Music Downloads Going?
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Technology Trends: Where Are Music Downloads Going? - Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Where Are Music Downloads Going?

Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Where Are Music Downloads Going?

For the past couple of years, there have been rumors about Apple discontinuing its sales of music downloads in the iTunes store. With its streaming Apple Music service hitting the 40 million subscribers mark a few weeks ago, the rumors have picked up steam. The doomsaying momentum (some would call it a panic) is worsened by one website’s report earlier this year that an outgoing Apple Music executive, legendary record producer Jimmy Iovine, admitted that while there is no timetable in place, downloads will stop “when people stop buying. It’s that simple.”

It’s a bit of a vague statement on which to announce the imminent death of music downloads from the company that most famously legitimized them. Is Iovine saying there’s a prediction and a plan for the end of sales? Or is he stating the most obvious thing about any business at all, which is that it will cease to be a business once people stop buying the product?

It would be easy to dismiss any of this as ominous if not for two big things. First, download sales have gone down steadily as streaming service subscriptions have gone up. Second, Apple is notorious for pulling the plug on technologies before most of us are through with them.

Changes in the market

Let’s look at sales. In a Forbes.com column, one writer explains that, when Apple legitimized music downloads in 2004, rescuing the digital format from Napster and Limewire, “download revenue started growing at the same steep rate as CDs had done during the 1980s. But the growth didn't last; revenue started leveling off in 2008.” Downloads, he says, lasted only four years as the leading revenue source in recorded music. Vinyl, tape, and especially CDs enjoyed much longer runs in that slot.

While many music lovers have been slow to embrace the streaming model, they’re being bulldozed by those wooed by the enormity of catalogs from services like Google Play Music, iTunes, and Spotify. As subscribers define and drive the market, nonsubscribers will find it more and more difficult to find the music they love as purchasable downloads, if trends continue the way they’re going. For a time beginning in the Nineties, most artists released their music on CD only, especially indie artists not backed by major labels. As we moved into the download era, this has become true of CDs: new releases by smaller-market creators are available only as downloads and through streaming services.


Maybe it’s not a big deal. Because of the low overhead for offering streaming music, smaller artists find themselves in streaming services with the kind of availability they never had before. Yet most of the subscription money is not going to artists, as many independent artists will tell you. An artist’s cut of download sales is much greater than his or her cut of streaming listens. It’s already nearly impossible for independent artists to make their livings on downloads. If the only money they make in the near future is on their share of streaming listens, most won’t be able to hang on.

Music fandom as hostage

Sales for independent musicians aside, there is a deeper concept in play: a shift in the way we think about the music we consume. Streaming services are great, but hardcore music lovers subscribe to them for their convenience and scope while also continuing to purchase downloads and physical media such as CDs and LPs. The idea of owning music remains important to collectors, but will it matter if the market goes too far in the streaming direction? Ten bucks a month only pays for access. When artists pull their music from the services, as Taylor Swift famously did for a time from iTunes, how much less valuable to subscribers does that access become?

If management groups or record labels get into disagreements with service providers, will tens of thousands of recordings, at the flick of a switch, become unavailable? If they do, subscribers will become the bargaining chips in negotiations, and the only real result will be increased subscription fees for continued access to the same music. Backing out of services will leave listeners with nothing except whatever they bought in the good old days of music downloads.

The Content Creators Coalition says, “If music generates money for anyone, therein lies the proof of its value and c3 is devoted to artists and creators receiving what theirs is.” The advocacy group recently sent a letter to Apple formally asking that it not discontinue music downloads, explaining that “downloads also protect fans from the vagaries of technological shifts, rights disputes, and legal changes that can cut them off from valued music if the only source they have available are streaming databases. This won’t be an issue for most listeners, of course, but Apple has always strived to serve not just casual fans, but people whose identity and self-expression is closely tied to the music they love.”

Too soon?

It’s too early to make funeral plans for download services, but serious consumers might be well served to think ahead, and musicians will once again make it or break it on their ability to connect with their audiences through other means, in order to continue making their livings. Crowdsourcing, which enables them to make their sales before funding new music, may be the only thing that keeps them going, or maybe some kind of resurgence for older technology, as in recent years with vinyl, will keep CDs and downloads alive. Either way, the ground is shifting on a monthly basis and it’s difficult to tell where it’s eventually going to settle.

Reference links:
Forbes.com: https://www.forbes.com/sites/billrosenblatt/2018/05/07/the-short-unhappy-life-of-music-downloads
Letter to Apple from Content Creators Coalition, via Digital Music News (links to PDF): https://www.digitalmusicnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/c3-letter-to-Apple-on-paid-importance-of-paid-music-downloads.pdf


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Technology Trends: Where Are Music Downloads Going? - Executive Leadership Articles

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