Turning the sandstoned corner of Sauchiehall and Buchanan Street, I think back to a time where “the town” was still a metropolitan novelty to me. As I pass the regressively barren branch of HMV – which used to be Zavvi, which used to be Virgin Megastore – I look over my shoulder to the Dr Martens outlet that used to lodge the narrow, tenement-like steps up to Music Zone. It would appear that mine shall be remembered as the last generation of loners who had the opportunity to escape the trauma of adolescence by detachedly flicking through album covers in the reassuring glow of a record shop.
Except that this romanticised, nostalgic vision of the past is far from accurate, as we have been illegally downloading our music from the moment we could lay our larcenous little fingers on a keyboard – our formative years spent glued to torrent sites and peer-to-peer file sharing clients. Yet, it is only in the last couple of years that piracy has ceased to be the concern it once was, and consumers have actively pursued a little legitimacy in their music collections.
Digital streaming in particular removes the incentive to pirate, and there are multitudes of different paid and non-paid services, as well as digital media stores at our behest. Spotify and iTunes are arguably the biggest and most popular, boasting tens of millions of songs between them.
“Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,” said David Bowie over a decade ago. Indeed, it seems that every writer on the subject likes to turn their own phrase on these recorded works of art being reduced to nothing more than a cultural utility. “But when you think about it,” says Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, “we want music to be like Coke.”
Spotify gifts users twenty hours of advert-laden streaming per month, as well as unlimited and premium subscription packages for £4.99 and £9.99 a month respectively. While iTunes selling tracks for 79p may curb illegal downloading, it devalues the format of the album – which was the main concern that kept outfits such as AC/DC from colluding for so long. Spotify does not grant you ownership of a song like iTunes does, but simply the privileged permission to listen to it. But this leaves one to ponder whether or not a collection of ones and zeros even constitutes ownership, seeing as consumers have had engrained into their souls the idea that owning music requires physical media.
It would perhaps be a little hasty to suggest that the days of recorded works being made available as physical objects are numbered, but with digital sales towering over their optical counterpart year by year, the obsolescence and antiquation of the CD may soon be upon us. Like the cassette tape and the vinyl before it, the last remaining appeal of the compact disc – aside from its sonic superiority – is simply that you can hold it in your hands; and it is this sense of possession against which streaming and downloading cannot compete. While this may be music to anti-consumerists’ ears, few can deny the reminiscences of such an object: unwrapping the cellophane like a present on Christmas morning, admiring the inserts and watching the discs themselves ultimately become rugged and blemished with age like their owners.
“Don’t want my MP3,” cries Neil Young on his latest offering with Crazy Horse, “when you hear my song now, you only get five percent – you used to get it all.”
But in the digital age, the difference between rental and ownership is somewhat ambiguous. With James Taylor becoming the latest in a long list of musicians suing their record labels over the attribution of digital royalties, it begs the inquiry not the terms and conditions of owning the distributed copies, but who owns the original recordings themselves.
The debate over the best “economic model” for both labels and artists may appear incongruous at times – especially to those who still think it’s “all about the music, dude” – but the revenue an artist makes per-play on digital services varies, yet the figure has never appeared to exceed half a penny for Spotify or 8p for every song bought on iTunes. From the Black Keys to Biffy Clyro, artists have been airing their grievances for years, as it becomes ever-clearer that these services may not be as viable as they were once considered to be. As technology shrinks the planet, the music industry is growing in abundance: now, any eighteen-year-old with some music software and a half decent microphone can construct their own ditties and distribute them to millions of people within minutes. While the altogether very capitalist concept of competitiveness may be profuse, it awaits to be seen whether this shall be beneficial or detrimental to the emergence of new talent.
On the stairwell of Pivo Pivo, a well-known Glasgow watering hole for emerging ensembles, Ron North and George Patterson of the yet-unsigned ‘Threerdos’ share a cigarette before their soundcheck.
“I don’t think a band could be successful without an online presence nowadays just because of the way the music industry is,” says bassist North, “building yourself up and getting a fan base, that’s how you get noticed nowadays.”
“The days of getting plucked out of a gig are long gone,” laments drummer Patterson. They have, tellingly, since disbanded.
With the kind of indolent turn of phrase that seems becoming of one who would be so pompous as to call themselves a “media futurist,” Gerd Leonhard says that “the word of mouth will be the word of mouse.” Indeed, the future of the music industry will see the revolving door of successes it always has; but will lie, as it always has, in the hands of the label executives with the most legal clout. And how ironic it isn’t that Napster creator, Sean Parker, whose squabbles with Metallica kick-started the piracy debate at the turn of the millennium, is now a man worth over $2 billion – on the board of directors of Spotify.
Tell the world!