The Downloaders Divided: A Generation Lost in Digital Space

ONCE upon a time, back in the days when doctors prescribed twenty unfiltered navy shags for a cough and crime was accompanied by ample portion of fanciful loitering, a gleaming, brass cylinder – known in the UK as the Gramophone – revolutionised the way music could be heard by the masses. Crude-looking and difficult to lug around the neighbours’ on New Years, the Gramophone promised to bring with it what Thomas Edison envisioned only a few years before: a world in which all forms of music could be enjoyed in the comfort of one’s own home, without the inconvenience of filling the parlour with a group of moody musicians.

Fast forward, as it were, to our technology-driven cultural landscape, however, and very quickly it becomes clear even to the most casual music fan that the grand visions of history’s great inventors pale in comparison to the machinations of today’s conglomerates. Nowadays, after all, just about everywhere one turns, from Café Nero to Toys R Us, Burger King to the local Bingo, we find ourselves accompanied by tunes for each and every mood and season. It almost goes without saying: we have become voracious consumers of sound.

Yet music sales on the whole are on the wane. For eleven out twelve months, 2007 had been the worst year for the recording industry in terms of revenue for more than a quarter of a century. And as a budding songwriter myself, a predicted 11 per cent dip in money made in 2007 doesn’t bode well for my career, while talented artists are already being overlooked as risk averse big-wigs attempt to guarantee success with James Blunt clones and, of course, X-Factor winners. (HMV reported its sales increased last Christmas, bucking the trend. The cause? High sales of all the performers involved with this year’s X-Factor. Great.)

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Though many would blame piracy, it is my opinion that a lot of the problems stem from Apple’s iconic iPod: a high capacity MP3 encyclopaedia so user friendly enough it caters to the diverse phonic needs of millions, yet fashionable enough to wear as a key chain around Soho. At 79p a downloaded song one need never be concerned with facing silence while using sweaty public transport again. And you just don’t need those silly compact disc racks that your mother once enjoyed dusting so much. All you really need is one moderately sized trouser pocket and you’re set.

But here is the kicker: although there are other MP3 players on the market, some a lot cheaper than the iPod, and music on the move isn’t a new phenomenon, as accessing and manipulating digital media becomes more and more simplistic it subsequently transcends all boundaries. The ubiquity and simplicity of the iPod removes the premium on finding and acquiring music to your taste. Surely we can therefore only look forward to the further degrading of music – wait for it – as an art form.

I grew up listening to albums and getting to know artists through a body of work, not listening to individual tracks. If you did happen to like just the one track back then, and it so happened to be an album track you’d heard from a live set, you were essentially forced to buy the entire LP for just that one song. Subsequently, you would find yourself listening to the rest of an artist’s work, perhaps enjoying it, perhaps wanting to hear more, and perhaps becoming a life-long fan.

This being the case, classic prog-rock albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon wouldn’t see daylight in today’s market. And remember when you first came across Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run? On first listen I personally couldn’t hear far past the title-track and the epic Jungleland, but in time, the record slowly grew on me much like mould on a fine cheese. By the fifth or sixth run-through, not only was I completely hooked on Mary, Little Steven and the gang, I was addicted to Springsteen.

The point is this: do you want Kylie’s Locomotion? Wacko-Jacko’s Thriller? Heck, do you want Bye-Bye-Baby? Well, if you do, you got it. And all at the click of a sticky mouse button. But while many will inevitably continue to purchase (or steal) these single tracks in order to cater to their immediate musical tastes, in the long run it seems any lasting connection to an artist and their work, developed in the past through our listening to and persevering with a 10-track whole, will become clouded in a world increasingly enamoured by the seductive quick-fix of a disembodied download.

Simon Clancy
Illustration by Sarah Jane Blake www.sarahjaneblake.co.uk

6 Comments

  1. anon says:

    ‘a predicted 11 per cent dip in money made in 2007 doesn’t bode well for my career’

    It doesn’t bode well for the Record Industry as a whole but it doesnt mean that you cant still make a decent living from touring, innovative merchandising, broadcast royalties etc. Business is brand-driven and as long as that is the case, artistic popularity will generate money, you just have to a bit savvy in making sure you get your share

    There has never been a better time for an artist to get there music out to the general public. The tools necessary to record music are widely available for free in the same way that the music is. The meritocracy is coming back to music communities and the money-men are leaving. All these things are, in my opinion, extremely exciting.

  2. mike says:

    Let’s go forward a few years. The recording industry no longer exists as such. The odd single is recorded in a day cheaply at a studio and is given away free at the bands web site. Why spend £100,000 in a studio for an album when the marginal cost is zero. Plus people never really liked giving 90%+ of the price of an album to a record company anyway. Subscriptions to recordings of every concert the band make brings in a fair bit of cash but the concerts at the converted disused cinemas (did I mention that cinema no longer exists and has been replaced by theatre?) bring in 90% of the bands earnings. Well they would if it weren’t for those bloodsucking concert promoters who seem to be run by the same guys who used to run the record companies.

  3. Ed says:

    I enjoyed your article Simon, but i have to say I think you are mostly wrong. As a self-proclaimed muso, your attitude surprises me.

    There are more things to consider than the figures you have looked at. When you say music sales are on the wane, where are your figures coming from? Bare in mid that iTunes has made music more accessible to most of the population and given rise to many more sales, however the cost of buying music from there is much cheaper, so it less money gets spent if you look from one perspective.

    Equally, as a “budding songwriter” you should realise that all that really does bode well for you. Your chances of becoming successful in major label terms haven’t changed. What iTunes DOES mean, is that you can now just put an album together and put it on iTunes – there it is ready for someone to buy. Hurrah, surely!?

    The truth is, music IS becoming more diverse, yes the iPod has an effect for the regular, non-music-obsessed folk – it allows them to hear lots of music. Surely yo’d have to be a Philistine to want rid of that. For the more discerning listener, music has returned to the underground. Downloads mean that independant record labels are rife again, far more easily able to access their audience. The underground lives and breathes as never before.

    Also, you are ill-informed about albums. Firstly, singles are what came first. The original studios used to send them out in droves – Stax, Motown, Studio1 and the like. Singles ARE the charts, which has been the measure of musical success for a very long time. Secondly, where did you research your assumption that peple don’t download whole albums? You certainly didn’t do it with iTunes, Beatport etc figures. And if you asked me I’d tell you I frequently listen to albums in entirety on my iPod, just the same as i pick up the needle form my vinyl deck and skip past the shit tracks on an album.

  4. Simon Clancy says:

    Well, about time I responded methinks!

    I take on board what each of you has said, and yes maybe the money-men are leaving the industry and it has become easier for people like myself to produce and album and get it out on the market.

    I would stand by my point, however, that with the greater diversity this situation gives rise to, our ability to identify with an artist’s work will become more and more strained. There will be more choice and subsequently less reason to bear with the odd track here that we disliked on first listen, but grew to love over time.

    Anyway, I’ve re-read the article, and it does seem to have this overly cynical tone! As with most things in life, I would say the future is both good and bad for creating and distributing music.

    As for my sources, you can try this link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7206837.stm.

    Si

  5. Ed says:

    So when you say “sources” you mean “source”, and your solitary source is a BBC report on a set of figures released by the IFPI who are essentially… well do you even know what their main objective is? Balls to it, i can’t be bothered to go into it.

    I like your observation of a topic of interest but your journalistic rigor is lacking. You’ve clearly got a spark of passion for writing, let’s see the next submission a bit better researched!

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