For the 35 and younger crowd, music is almost entirely a digital thing. Some thirty-somethings with extra money and dedication to taking deeper dives into music may also be a part of the vinyl resurgence. Still, folks who never watched Johnny Carson host the tonight show probably never bought dedicated shelving for records, cds or (gasp) cassette tapes. Being in my mid-40s, I came of musical age when those cassette tapes were the convenient medium, especially for those of us mesmerized by the first Walkmans. In the years that followed, the cassettes in my collection morphed and expanded into cds, remastered cds, gold cds and things like Super-Audio cds.
The one format that largely passed me by is (or maybe we should say “was”) the digital download. I owned one of the first commercially available mp3 players (Rio PMP300) but I never got into buying or pirating downloads. In the early 2000s, while most listeners were downloading/pirating their way to disrupting and destroy the likes of Tower Records, I was feeling superior by continuing to buy and rip cds with Musicmatch Jukebox my ripping software of choice. There are two reasons why downloading was never my thing. I had a crap ton of cds. Personal preferences and inertia prevented me from thinking music could be possessed any other way. Second, I was and remain an album person. Not in the vinyl sense (remember – Walkman). I mean albums in the sense that I want to hear all the songs in the broader context intended by the artist.
Here, I can prove it. The track listing for Peter Gabriel’s So, one of the formative albums of my early teenage years, is Red Rain, Sledgehammer, Don’t Give Up, That Voice Again, In Your Eyes, Mercy Street, Big Time, We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37) and This Is the Picture. I know what you’re thinking. I could have just looked that up. Trust me, I don’t have to. I just hum the last few notes of one song and the the first notes of the next song come rushing in. I can do it with jazz albums too. Miles Davis Kind of Blue. So What, Freddie Freeloader, Blue in Green, All Blues, Flamenco Sketches.
Where was I? Oh yes, downloading music. It appears that I am no longer alone when it comes to avoiding downloads as their revenue peaked at $3.9 billion in 2012. Why are we in or heading to a post-download world? Steaming, of course. So, cassettes killed vinyl (but not really), cds killed cassettes (really), downloads killed cds (pretty much) and now streaming is killing downloads. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that subscription-based streaming services are going to kill downloads.
Streaming has been around in different versions for longer than you might remember. Pandora is 16 years old. Pandora is excellent at what it does (personalized internet radio), but its lack of song-by-song control means it will never be the service for dedicated listeners. Streaming really came into its own with Spotify. Moreover, streaming really became a thing when Spotify made to America in the summer of 2011. Remember, download revenue peaked in 2012. Coincidence? Probably not. Now, downloads are on their way down, but they are not dead yet and Spotify alone cannot kill downloads. Why? Have you tried to use Spotify? I’ve had Spotify for years and every time I go back to it I’m reminded that it’s terrible. I’m not saying it doesn’t do what it says it does. It absolutely does. But, the interface is maddening and the catalog is only now becoming impressive. What will eventually kill the download is the competition between Spotify and the folks who made the download a $3.9 billion industry – Apple Music. Apple Music launched a little more than a year ago and offers a free three month trial. Like Spotify, the interface for Apple Music is a frustrating experience. But the unfair and obvious advantage of Apple Music is that it’s on every iPhone, iPad and Mac. The iPod was not the first digital music player to market but it was the first one purchased by many people. Of course, the same is true for the Mac, the iPad and the Apple Watch. Actually, the Apple Watch and Apple Music are in similar positions. They’re fairly new and warrant consider criticism but Apple is poised to release updates simplifying both products after learning how these products work in the real world. (Note – news of a Spotify versus Apple tiff recently came to light.)
I, for one, welcome the coming streaming subscription overlords because I think it has a chance to revive the album concept. Not concept albums, although that would be cool, but the idea that artists craft songs meant to be heard in a particular order with accompanying artwork. Instead of downloading individual songs for $0.99 a pop, consumers will soon acclimate to spending $10 a month for unlimited streaming. If it costs the same money to listen to one song 10 times as it does to listen to 10 songs once, perhaps the full album will get a chance. Time will tell of course but even an artist like Steven Wilson, no fan of the download culture himself, has made his albums available on streaming services in the hope that more people will listen to his art in its full context.