time to change the way we view music and the arts

Wait, Can We Back-Up Things Up for a Second?

So while I was poking around Twitter a couple days ago and then again last night when I discovered a great online discussion about “PR 2.0” under the hashtag “pr20chat”, an imminent two sided issue came up that almost caused me some personal alarm and I needed to do a double take on what I discovered.

Hypebot.com commented on a story that originated from a post off of the online publication, Side-Line Music Magazine, wherein a story was written claiming that the “Big 4” major labels are planning to

abandon the CD-format by the end of 2012 (or even earlier) and replace it with download/stream only releases via iTunes and related music services. The only CD-formats that will be left over will be the limited edition ones, which will of course not be available for every artist. The distribution model for these remaining CD releases would be primarily Amazon which is already the biggest CD retailer worldwide anyhow.”

I don’t know about the rest of you but amidst my usual skimming of headlines when skipping back and forth from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like, the headline can occasionally cause me to react before I get the chance to legitimately and rationally absorb what I’ve just read. (Though that just means the headline is effective at grabbing your attention so you have to investigate further, which is admirable from a journalism/marketing standpoint.) After momentarily considering a world without physical sales and subsequently shuddering, I grounded myself and took the side of Hypebot, not leaning to believe such a drastic announcement. You would laugh if you heard my saddened proclamation that “There are still so many CDs I haven’t bought for my collection yet!” Thankfully that doesn’t need to be uttered again just yet. Aside from the fact that the originating source lacks substantial references for its claims, the business concept itself makes little sense.

The industry might not be what it once was and might be prone to quicker twists, turns and changes, on top of physical sales still struggling in losses but as of recently as September, that gap has shrunken a notable amount from 19% to 4%. So that’s still movement in a positive direction. Prior to now, July had also seen lots of reports about increases in physical sales, including this reassuringly written article by the writers from the guardian.co.uk, where they noted the increase in physical sales for the first time since 2004 and referred to the U.S. as “…remain[ing] a country of musical traditionalists” and that “[d]ownloads still account for just one out of three albums sold, with CDs being the most popular format by far.”

All the same, these figures and pretty words hardly bring the CD back to its former glory and I do understand this reality. In picturing the industry going completely digital, whether it were to happen now, a year, five or 10 years from now, it would just be an advancement of a trend toward all things digital, which isn’t so foreign of a proposition with mobile devices being like household objects. However, as I mentioned an imminent two-sided issue, let’s contemplate for a moment how the above written shift, regardless of when it happens, can paint a very hollow and manipulative picture for what I consider to be an industry grounded in imagination, personality and hard work.

Practically speaking, I do see advantages to digital sales over physical ones. With no tangible merchandise to handle, there’s a removal of stocking work and affiliated fees. Sellers won’t “run out” of copies for high demand albums for consumers, there’s no line to wait on to get your product, just the time it takes to type in your credit/debt card information….and so on. These are pluses for a decent amount of consumers who want a quick transaction process to get to their music faster and if the consumer is happy, that’s what matters right? What about core values though? I have repeatedly considered and shaken my head at people who download only (legally or not) and end up on online forums`trying to regain their lost collections because their computers and other devices have suddenly failed entirely and all their data is gone. When you think about the idea that loss of data means loss of music and the added back and forth battle for watermarked music that can’t be rampantly and freely shared in order to protect copyright that also occasionally blocks the consumer from making backups, the hypothetical, legal outcome could be this:

Consumer: “My computer crashed! I just lost over 600 albums!”

Music supplier: “Well, if you want those back, you’ll have to re-download them. …and pay for each new copy.

I can imagine such a data loss would amount to either the consumer just letting go of getting back certain albums or dishing out a whole lot of money all at once, rather than over time, as I’m sure that much music was probably acquired. At other times for a situation like this, when you lose a serious school paper for example, people usually say “You should have backed it up.” Let’s say though that in a “digital sales only” world, you can’t transfer things to flash drives or blank CDs. Labels and distributors would probably love for consumers to have to keep paying for product upon deletion or corruption. With physical sales, if your CD warps or you break/scratch it beyond use, yeah, to get that CD back you’d have to buy another but at least you’d have the option to create backups for my own personal use. If, and I say a big if for this scenario, this kind of situation were to develop over time, that would make industry sales hugely profit driven over satisfaction driven. Kind of the same way digital technology (e.g. computers, mobile phones) outdates itself and breaks down over a shorter period of time than its predecessors, thereby forcing people to have to replace it more often. An end result of this nature, where consumers can be backed into a corner over the single object of money, wouldn’t stand on a podium proclaiming love of the medium, which feels most disingenuous for a field that isn’t driven by a single figure but a variety of people all unique to themselves. Do you agree? Do you think this sales model could ever come to pass?

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