Friday, March 18, 2011

Sound the death knell

Earlier this week, Jon Bon Jovi claimed that Steve Jobs of Apple is single-handedly killing the music business. His basic reasoning, mp3s have taken away the experience of looking for, buying and listening to vinyl (or to CDs for that matter).

While he does have a point in that mp3s are lower quality and there is no physical packaging that comes when you download an album through iTunes, I think saying that Jobs is killing the industry is a bit of an overstatement.

For one, consumers chose the mp3, it wasn't what the industry itself wanted. The mp3 was created in the late 1980s and, by the mid-90s, had started to become very popular as a way to store music. The industry itself didn't necessarily want the move towards mp3s, they make more money from physical media, but consumers really pushed for the format. It may be of lower quality, but most people either don't notice, don't mind or they don't care.

Apple also is not the only player in the game, nor did they start it. Yes, they have become the biggest distributors of music, but we would still see the digital trend growing if they left the market or were never there to begin with. Amazon, eMusic, other distributors and even the record companies and artists themselves are making digital music available (for purchase, usually) online.

What's probably hurting the industry more is the continuation of pirating and other sub-legal sources for free music. Napster as a peer-to-peer service may have died ten years ago, but others have popped up. For awhile, it was Limewire and Bearshare, now it's torrents and sites (usually based in other countries) like Rapidshare and Megaupload. Heck, you can Google something, throw "mp3" or "rar" into the search and find free downloads. At least with Apple's iTunes, record companies and artists still get paid something. For what that's worth, it may be among the last things keeping the music industry alive, imperfect as it is.

Another claim of Bon Jovi is that people no longer "discover" music. I actually think Apple, Amazon and the Internet in general help in the discovery of music. One no longer has to rely on either mainstream options or the tastes of the local record store owner for new music. The Internet also removes the risk of buying something that you end up not liking. You can find out who the artist has been inspired by, who they've worked with and who they sound like and then stream, or download, a few songs, then decide whether you like it and would like to purchase. Artists can also reach broader audiences more easily and gain fans across the world who, a generation ago, would not have had any exposure to that artist.

For most, physical media is impractical. As much as I love collecting and listening to vinyl, neither my bank account nor the space in my apartment will allow me to duplicate the music collection stored on my computer in that format. Nor do I love everything in my music library enough to shell out what can sometimes end up being up to or beyond $25 for the vinyl record. For a lot of people, the issue also involves the desire not to spend $10, $15 or $30 for an album when all they want is one song. While I personally prefer to have whole albums (just one of my little neuroses), the way in which most music is distributed now matches the way that most people listen to it.

I'm obsessed with music, so I should agree with Bon Jovi, but I think his criticism is way overstated. The proliferation of digital distribution of music probably only aids in the discovery and has been something that many artists and record companies have adapted to in order to continue making money in this digital age. If anything, he's right in that the music listening experience has deteriorated. However, I doubt many people 40 years ago were true audiophiles and I'm sure few people are today. For the most part, it doesn't matter. And for those of us who still revel in the listening experience, we should be happy that we can still get that experience if we'd like.

No comments:

Post a Comment