In case you’re not always glued to the official Spotify Twitter feed, let me repeat a fact that was recently mentioned on it — if you were to listen to every song in the Spotify catalogue, back to back, without stopping to eat or sleep, it would take you 100 years. Of course, an abundance of music is nothing particularly new, but never before has it been so easily accessible. As broadband speeds increase, and streaming music services grow in popularity, it seems we’re on the verge of a second digital music revolution.
The first digital music revolution, in case you missed it, happened when many of us swapped our CD and cassette players for iPods
The first digital music revolution, in case you missed it, happened when many of us swapped our CD and cassette players for iPods (and other less popular digital music players). The famous MP3 arrived, which could cram decent quality music into a much smaller file size, and as broadband took off it no longer took hours to download tracks and albums. For many younger music lovers, iTunes, Amazon and 7Digital took the place of HMV and Double Four Records. Queueing up a day’s worth of listening now only took a couple of mouse clicks, and our CD shelves grew dusty and neglected.
Spotify makes it possible to hear as much new music as you like
In 2008, Spotify arrived, challenging the still-fresh digital music paradigm. For a flat, monthly fee, listeners can listen to as much music as they like. Spotify’s subscribers will never actually own anything, but the choice of songs is now (virtually) unlimited. There is much about Spotify that makes sense — there’s no need to download anything or clear space on a hard drive; it makes it possible to hear as much new music as you like, without paying anything extra; and you can listen on the go or without an Internet connection, if you’ve cached some of your playlists for offline listening (as networks are upgraded, this will become less and less important). Other services like Rdio have joined the fray, and been broadly embraced, which poses the question: is music ownership dead? Will those who buy MP3s soon become as rare as those who buy vinyl?
YouTube features just about every popular song of the last twenty years and beyond — why pay anything when you can hear (and watch) the majority of your favourite tracks for the price of a small pop-up advert?
There are a few factors to bear in mind if we’re going to hazard a guess at an answer. One is YouTube, which features just about every popular song of the last twenty years and beyond — why pay anything when you can hear (and watch) the majority of your favourite tracks for the price of a small pop-up advert? Brave a party mostly attended by under-25s and you’re as likely to find revellers queueing up YouTube clips on a laptop as scrolling through a playlist on an iPod. After all, Google’s data centres can hold many more hits of the 80s, 90s and 2000s than your Nano can.
Spotify and its ilk don’t quite have the instant simplicity of YouTube, but the catalogue is broader and the principles are the same. Why pay for Rhianna’s latest chart-topper if you can hear it (almost) any time, (almost) anywhere, for free (or as part of your existing subscription)? The advantages of digital music ownership are starting to look shaky as Spotify, Rdio and YouTube appear on more and more devices, and there’s certainly not the same kudos associated with stuffing your hard drive with MP3s as there is with building up a treasured CD collection.
Always-on, high-speed Internet is another factor killing off the idea of ownership. To switch art forms for a moment, compare having to transfer gigabytes’ worth of movies to a new computer with simply loading up a Web browser and signing into Netflix. Spotify works the same way, as does any cloud service like Facebook or Gmail — if you’re too young to remember having to transfer an Outlook Express inbox from an old computer to a new one, consider yourself blessed. Apple, Google and Microsoft know this, which is why they are all making such a determined push into cloud services.
Is it inevitable that the bulk of the music lovers of the future won’t bother with owning any music at all?
As broadband and mobile data speeds go up and cloud storage prices go down, it seems almost inevitable that the bulk of the music lovers of the future won’t bother with owning any music at all — they will simply sign up to their streaming service of choice if they are serious music fans, or make do with YouTube and the like if they are casual listeners. The next challenge for software and app developers is creating a workable recommendation and playlist management system when users have access to a music library that would take two lifetimes to listen to.