Everyday we’re being told by some biased article or press-release from any one of the music industry lobbyist groups; MPAA, RIAA, ARIA – that pirating is harming the industry, yadda yadda yadda. The real question is: is the music industry really broken and how can it be fixed?
The answer is yes, the music industry is broken. It’s a known fact both within the industry and outside of it that the current business model most labels adhere too is unsustainable. But make no mistake, the music industry is far from going broke. The real reason revenues are in decline is because label executives fail to realise the immense profits they saw in the 90’s are over unless they adapt.
Is it any surprise that the decline in revenue for physical releases started around 2003 when faster DSL internet connections became more affordable and people started transitioning away from dial-up? The real killer of the industry is those who run it, when programs like Napster took advantage of faster speeds labels should have done the same thing instead they chose to fight. Prolonging the inevitable is just plain ignorant.
Propaganda spilling groups like the RIAA will tell you piracy is up, they’ll tell you physical music sale revenues have been on a downward slope since 2004. What groups like the RIAA will fail to tell you is that digital music sales have been slowly but steadily increasing since 2004. For the first time in history digital sales recently surpassed physical sales and this will most likely be the norm from now on.
Digital music costs are slightly more realistic but still hampered by highly inflated costs. In Australia a new release physical album will set you back about $30 and in the iTunes Australia store you’ll pay about $19 for a new album by a popular artist. How is it that a digital release can only cost $10 less than a physical item that had to be handled, printed, shipped and then stocked? It’s unrealistic pricing placed upon music that is one of the reasons people pirate music.
Fix #1 – More digital bitrate choices.
This is one issue that has yet to be solved in the digital music world. It’s next to impossible to buy an album or single off of iTunes for example that has the same clarity and good sound quality that a CD has. MP3 has served us well over the years but an industry standard lossless format for digital music is a must if it’s going to be the new standard.
MP3’s used to be okay because quite frankly the technology was so new to people it wasn’t over-analysed and people were just happy to be able to hear music without needing to open up a CD case and hoping their CD wasn’t too scratched to play. In this day and age more and more people are able to tell the difference between a CD and a 256kbps iTunes track, our aural capabilities are expanding.
Give people the option of choosing which bitrate they want like Bandcamp offers. Don’t force the same bitrate upon those who want something that sounds better, especially people with expensive sound systems where good and bad quality recordings are more obvious. For those who want lower quality, offer them the choice. You pay once and get all formats for free.
Fix #2 – A better, more interesting approach to digital album artwork.
In the digital realm you’re not limited to a small square piece of paper sitting inside of a plastic case, and yet when you purchase a digital release the artwork feels like a scan of the physical artwork, a mere one dimensional jpeg file.
Part of the reason I buy physical releases is for the liner notes, track-listing and album artwork. Album artwork in digital releases feels emotionless, it feels effortless and needs to be shaken up. I think software companies, labels and bands all need to work together to make this possible.
Imagine playing a track on your iPod and each track had individual and cool digitally exclusive artwork that showed up? Take it a step further and have the lyrics and artwork intertwined that show in time with the music. This is similar to what bands have been doing with Youtube lyric videos.
Fix #3 – Realistic pricing.
There are next to no distribution costs, there aren’t any printing costs or manufacturing costs associated with pressing and packaging up a physical release – so why is it that digital music is only slightly cheaper than a physical release, when it takes less effort to release an album digitally? It doesn’t add up. I’ve even seen cases where a digital version costs more than the physical copy because it came with a bonus track or music video.
I understand the labels need to pay their artists as well as recouping the costs of the recording, marketing costs and paying their employees but the pricing for a digital track or album should reflect the money being saved by the lack of manufacturing and reduced promo costs.
Fix #4 – Lyrics, please.
One thing that digital releases almost always lack is lyrics. The iPhone and iPod amongst other music players have the ability to show the lyrics for a track on screen, they’ve had that capability for as long as I can remember. I can’t think of a single digital track or release that I’ve bought that came with the lyrics. It seems like an easy thing to do considering you can do it yourself, I guess the digital realm just haven’t caught up yet.
Obviously digital music is the future, either the industry can evolve or lag behind and eventually die. Labels will die but digital music never will. The digital music space is still new and has plenty of room for improvement, but it feels as though since becoming more and more prevalent since 2004, nothing has changed. You’re still downloading a file off of the internet, but it’s never anything more than just a file.