Musings on the future of physical media

I remember how in the early 90’s, some media outlets made headlines about how the increasing popularity and storage space of personal computers would render the book obsolete in just a few years. According to them, CD-ROM’s would replace books and people would no longer need bound bundles of paper to do their reading.

But here we are, 30 years later, and there are still book stores in every major commercial centre everywhere. Even the appearance of Kindle and eBook-apps for tablet computers and smartphones have not killed off the printed book. Sure, they have negatively affected the sales of printed books, but it would seem to me the industry has managed to create a more or less stable co-existence between the two. The book as a physical product continues to exist, and sell.

For the past ten, fifteen years, voices in the music media and industry have been ever more loudly proclaiming the death of physical media in a very similar manner. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that in just a few years, nobody will buy music on physical media. One thing is for sure, it’s been an awful long “few years”.

Of course, it is a fact that sales have drastically plummeted. And of course the major industry makes the most of it by inducing panic and acting the victim. But, honestly, why is anyone surprised? If you ask me, the adverse effect on physical sales the emergence of streaming platforms has had is entirely natural… and in some aspects, even good.

Take a look at how the major biz has acted ever since popular music as a global mass phenomenon emerged in the wake of rock ‘n’ roll in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Ever so often, the music biz would roll out a new, “technically superior” format, create hype around it whilst declaring the old formats obsolete and outdated, re-release their back catalogue on it and goad people into buying their old favourites on this new “future format of music”. From vinyl to 8-track tape to audio cassette tapes to CD to minidisc. And now we’re full circle and the major biz are touting vinyl again. Honestly, what else is Record Store Day in this day and age but a sleazy marketing ploy for the major labels?

At the same time, most music listeners are casual listeners. They don’t care too much about owning complete discographies or original pressings. They like certain songs and want to listen to them. And if they follow trends, like most of them do, the music they want to listen to changes over time as artists and hits come and go. In the past, if radio airplay wasn’t sufficient for them, they were pretty much forced to buy the single or the album (and in the past 10-20 years, the CD single has been a pretty dead format). There wasn’t any option. So of course the major biz could peddle expensive silver discs to people who wanted this one song, in an ever-repeating cycle as new hits and hit artists emerged. And bargain bins, flea markets and second hand shops were filled with the hit discs of yesteryear.

So, before the dawn of Spotify and streaming technology, apart from music aficionados like me and most likely you, there were two other considerable groups from which the major biz could veritably leech money: people who wanted to own the records of their youth on a music format they can actually buy a new player for (ending up buying that Beatles album for the third, fourth, fifth time), and casual listeners who want to have the current hit available for them wherever, whenever.

Okay, an aside here. Don’t scoff at these “casual” music fans. It’s perfectly okay to not be so passionate about music. Everyone’s a casual at something, and just because you (and me) waste excessive amounts of money and time on music doesn’t make you (or me) any sort of elite. Calling these people “casual” isn’t a derogatory term, it’s a descriptory term.

So, one major change Spotify brought about was the fact that these people don’t need to spend the 13-20e a new CD costs to get their favourite Beatles album, this time mastered in 80 kHz half-speed audio on a gazillion tracks with shoddy demos and one previously unpublished photo as bonuses, or just to get that one Taylor Swift song they really like right now. They can log on to Spotify, or Deezer, or YouTube Music, or whatever, and listen to the song. For a nice little monthly sum.

This is good. I don’t want to sound elitist, but in this case, messing up the messed-up business model of the major biz is absolutely a good thing. It deserved to be destroyed.

Because the fact of the matter is, people into record collecting (a perfectly valid hobby) will continue collecting. They will continue buying new music. They will want their music on physical formats, even if they also might consume music via streaming platforms. This means there will always be a market for physical media, it will just change form and size. Physical formats will no longer be peddled in supermarkets and department stores, they will be sold by dedicated record stores. This is a change that has by and large already happened, and the continuing emergence of new record stores shows that there really is a future for music on physical media. The size of the market will decrease, yes, but it will continue to exist, and be healthy in whatever size it finds its balance in.

Of course, currently the major labels have latched on to the vinyl revival and, more recently, cassette tape. They’re still up to their old tricks, selling that Beatles album for 35e as a newly mastered (from original source tapes, naturally!) 250 gram audiophile special edition. Or as a 15e cassette tape that’s just as wonky as cassette tapes have always been (honestly, the major attraction of a cassette tape is ability to get 90 minutes of music for half the price of a CD). So we’re not yet rid of their pestilent behaviour, but my prediction is that given time the trend will abate and a stable, healthy market for vinyl (along with cassette tape and CD) will emerge. Remains to be seen what the big biz tries next.

Naturally, there are problems with streaming platforms, particularly in their payouts. The artists get less than pennies for plays, especially if they have middlemen in the form of record labels in there. But this is still an infant business model, it is still seeking its form. Undeniably, streaming is a major part of the future of music, so it pretty much has to find a way to work in a way that is acceptable to all parts involved. But, I’m not denying or ignoring the problems with streaming platforms.

The impact of streaming platforms for artists is a topic for another day, though. The point I’m making here is simple: streaming brought forth the “downfall” of the physical media biz because it had been artificially and even immorally bloated by questionable practices, forcing people to buy more than they actually wanted to. Streaming enables people to make consumer choices more suited to their needs, and that is good. The biz crashed because it wasn’t healthy to start with.

So in conclusion, streaming is not the end of music on physical media. Sales may plummet, but there will always be a solid and tenable customer base for music on vinyl, CD and even cassette tape. I do, however, doubt that we’ll see a new physical music format in our lifetime.

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