The Download Revolution

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The CD single may have vanished from the high street but we are actually buying more than ever according to BPI (British Recorded Music Industry) figures: over 152 million in 2009 alone.  The overwhelming majority of these – some 98% – were non-physical downloads. The download has now come of age and is finally delivering on its promise to revolutionise the music industry.

By contrast, the physical album, once the centrepiece of the record business, is in terminal decline. At the same as single sales were peaking, album sales slid by 3.5% to 128.9 million. Tellingly only an eighth of these were in the form of downloads. The rise of the download it seems is linked to the demise of the album.

The album is itself a product of a technological revolution. In 1877 Thomas Edison first recorded sound, laying the foundations for the modern industry. Music was popularised like never before using mass production, mass markets, and mass media. The very first album appeared in 1909 with the Odeon label releasing Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite on four double-sided discs.

The form of the album is a product of the limitations of its host media; only so much information can be stored on a 12 inch vinyl record or compact disc. This shaped the parameters of the album for so long that the standard 10-12 track format is ingrained in our collective musical subconscious. The download has now exceeded those barriers and is pushing them ever further with growing memory and faster internet connections. The download has also provided bands and artists with the means of production. By removing the need for a physical distribution network artists can bypass the instituionalised industry, getting their sounds straight onto listeners MP3 players within a few clicks.

Most importantly the download has given power to the people; the listener can create customized playlists with an ease only dreamt of in the days of the rather more fiddly mix-tape. The Guardian newspaper runs a popular feature where readers suggest tracks for a themed playlist. Themes set have so far included short songs, songs about crying, friendship and one night stands – the possibilities only limited by the imagination. No longer can the record industry, or even the artist dictate that song (a) should be followed by song (b).

Is this loss of artistic control entirely positive? In a film the director has selected the scenes in a particular sequence, for a particular effect, providing an overall narrative. The power of the recording artist as curator of an aural experience is under increasing threat. Will this mean we lose the unique vision of artists such as Alison Goldfrapp who creates a distinctive visual style for each album? Would an album like Pink Floyd’s the Wall ever emerge from the supermarket of tracks offered by cyberspace?

Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys certainly mourns the album when he sings “There’s only music so that there’s new ringtones” – an accusation that musical depth has been traded for instant impact: the sound bite, the catchy riff of the car or mobile phone advert repeated ad infinitum.

Curiously though the download may turn out to be the saviour of the album. In the midst of the overall decline 16.1 million albums were downloaded the UK in 2009, a growth of 56.1% on the previous year. Possibly some of this is the result of cheaper and faster internet connection speeds making downloading albums more widely accessible. The album may yet survive another century.

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