Music In The Digital Age

music digital
Illustration by Elizabeth Pollard Words by Nathan Diamond

The digital age has revolutionised the world. Technology such as the Internet and smart phones are constantly improving, making huge leaps of progression with no signs of slowing down. Musicians naturally have had to alter and adapt to the modern day resources available, with the use of computers being far more prominent in many aspects of the music industry. It’s changed the very roots of how artists are sourced and signed. It’s also had a huge impact on the way we listen and purchase (or don’t purchase) our songs. A smartphone now boasts the capabilities to hold over 20,000 songs, and it fits into the palm of your hand.

The digital age. It’s made the 20th century look like the middle ages, technology is so prevalent in our society now that it’s near impossible to avoid. Music has not escaped this technological takeover, although at times it does act like a stubborn dog on a lead. But has the hi-tech age improved the artist’s vision and helped audiences to further enhance their experience, or has it been responsible for the demise of an industry that was once so simple?

On average, music sales have remained fairly sturdy throughout the years, changing only by a few % each year. In 2013, sales fell by 3.9% to a net worth of $15 billion, showing that the music industry is still one with a high economy. However, the digital age has ultimately marked the end for physical sales of music, with CD sales declining by 50% between 2002 and 2012. In Australia, digital sales have surpassed physical sales, with the rest of the world expected to follow suit by 2016, a clear indication of the impact digital has had on the industry.

But despite this downfall in CD sales, vinyl sales have made an unexpected resurgence, currently sitting at the highest rate for 15 years. I ventured to Flat 13 Records in Bournemouth, a personal, intimate store which stocks both old and news records. Its walls are covered with dusty old 12” and hundreds of gig posters, with rustic furniture germane for a shop which sells such a classic product.

Ben Waugh, joint owner in the store, explained how despite these promising figures, records are still a thing of the past. “Vinyl still accounts for less than 2% of the market, it’s still peanuts in comparison to CDs and MP3s.” To put it in perspective, only 780,000 vinyls were sold in 2013, compared to the 943 million amassed by CD, a sector which is constantly decreasing. “It’s a shame, but anyone who still wants to listen to their artist on vinyl can. Those who really treasure this process of collecting the artwork sleeves, maintaining them and having that warmth in their music can. But I think the digital age has created it’s problems, the most obvious one being the fact the illegal downloading means artists are being robbed for their work.”

Illegal downloading provides a quick, free and easy way for someone to create an expansive music library, all through a few simple clicks of a button. Many claim that music has become so easily accessible that it has lost part of it’s innate charm, not to mention the hardcore audiophiles who are screaming out to the word that downloads are only at 192kb and not the way the artist intended them to be heard. Ben is one of these, who still thinks that “you won’t ever get a better sound than you get off a vinyl, that’s an aspect no technology will replace.” However, although this issue of piracy has been hugely amplified in it’s relevance to the music industry, a new but controversial seed has bloomed hoping to counter it. Music streaming websites.

These sites seem to offer a good deal to the consumer, who can still listen to music for free but in a format more legal and respectful to the artists. Sadly though, this ‘income’ gained per play is so small that you couldn’t even pay your bus fare with the earnings – even if all the passengers were listening to your music the whole journey.

Spotify, the company at the forefront of this new method, has split the industry and consumers alike. By paying only $0.007 per play to the artist, artists like the ever controversial Radiohead singer Thom Yorke have spoken out, naming it “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse”. But of course, many claim that Spotify “are now paying artists for their music,” also stating that they have paid out “$1 Billion USD to date in royalties.” This was all Spotify would comment on the matter, after countless calls and emails. On their ‘artists page’, they have this to say, “unfortunately, the majority of music consumption today generates little to no money for artists. We are working hard to fix this, and are proud to offer music fans a legal and paid service capable of generating for artists the royalties that they deserve.”

But what I wanted to know what artists actually thought of these services. I spoke with Dios Mio, the latest fresh faced band to enter the alternative scene. Their grunge-pop styled music has begun to generate interest, racking up multiple radio plays and Soundcloud views. The band didn’t see Spotify as a thorn though, saying that it’s existence was crucial to the overall progression of music.

“For a new band, music streaming sites are essential now and I don’t have a problem with that. I think downloading music illegally is unfair because it prevents people from making a living out of their art and hinders people from having creative existences, and Spotify does take steps to stop this from continuing.”

However, not all artists thought with such positivity about the digital age’s impact upon music. Veteran DJ Mr Scruff has been producing his nonchalant trip-hop styled music for 20 years now, with over 5 studio albums and hundreds of gigs under his belt. The grandmaster explained how despite technology being so prominent in music, he tends to avoid computers and other gadgets when he can. “I still play all my sets on vinyl. WIth records it has it’s own memory, you remember where you bought it, where you first listened to it. Of course I have however started using the web as it’s not possible to succeed in music nowadays without doing so, but I keep it to a minimum.”

It seems that the digital age has certainly forced out physical sales of music, but it is not just music which has seen the swap to a virtual existence. The very foundations of the media have been shook, with magazines and other media outlets forced to shift to this world wide transition to virtual data. Most new laptops now no longer have built in CD drives, another indication of our drive to dispatch physical objects. Music is now more accessible in modern day, with people now able to listen to much more music than ever before at a fraction of the cost. Spotify has had a 40% increase in music subscribers in the past year alone, another clear sign that artists are either being given the chance to jump on board or drown at sea, as the place of physical music sales becomes ever more silent.

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