Digital Music in 2015

Some ‘state of the nation’ observations about where we seem to be at the end of 2014 in the world of digital music:

1. Only an extreme optimist would make a meaningful bet on the recorded music industry as a whole growing significantly in the next few years. Sales of downloads are likely to show slow growth or stasis, streaming will grow, some new territories will emerge, but what growth there is will be about enough to offset the continued slide in physical product. On demand playback, over the air, over wires, or from encrypted caches on devices and hard drives, is getting more people habitually paying for music, but for many previous download and CD buyers it is a better value replacement for owning files and discs.

2. We have, finally, a reasonably well set up supply chain in digital music, with a collective path to future improvement through DDEX, which has changed in an important way by including compliance, and is also now touching ancillary areas of metadata management and communication. There is renewed impetus to address other shocking failures in metadata and identifiers. As a whole the industry is probably still investing, but a return on that investment is now firmly in sight.

3. Good as it is, and with proven scalability to support the 45 million tracks now commercially available, our metadata capability is very skinny, and is not even starting to approach the depth and richness of the LP sleeve or CD booklet. This is a serious consumer issue; if we don’t feed the passionate or even the merely curious we are devaluing all recorded music, and taking oxygen from artists and the industry. What commercial databases there are are an insult to fans with their bad prose and out of date reviews and biographies. One square artwork image, and one artist photo, is equally poor. Record labels and services need to collaborate to improve this dramatically, or face a future where recorded music is a utility, rather than a passion and an obsession for fans.

4. The professional part of the industry needs to differentiate from hobbyists, and the best way to do that is by embracing every aspect of product quality, from the microphone right through to the press release. Twenty years ago it was OK to represent the product as an unfortunate impediment between the art and the audience. Now not so much; the world is rediscovering its love of authenticity and craft, and music needs to be part of that journey through recognised high product quality standards and extensive consumer education. This applies to digital as well as physical, where it is visible already in the re-emergence of the vinyl record. Our love affair with DIY culture is no reason to demolish all formal signs of professionalism. This is not an argument for closed shops and exclusion however. Consumers will embrace the effort and care that goes into a music product in the context of fair and open markets.

5. One school of thought sees music, particularly pop, as a grand illusion, or less charitably a charade. At its best the pop music spectacle remains utterly compelling, and great escapist fun. We are also, however, in an age of radical transparency, where every action, word, contract, and posture is minutely scrutinised. For the music industry, romance of the kind eulogised in the famous Thompson quote, is dead. This means, I believe, that we have a very difficult path to walk, between the excesses of the past (behaving badly and getting away with it) to a future founded on a different kind of passion, for high quality and ethical product and business practices. But nobody likes a pious fool, so we must do this without jettisoning our humour and ability to connect emotionally with music fans.

There is nothing special about the music industry; we see trends in business and in consumption across the world promoting ethics, quality, transparency, and a shared sense that we should use what we do each day to improve the world we live in. These thoughts for 2015 are offered with hope, and with goodwill to all who work in the music industry, and all who love music.

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