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I Needed Music 'cos I Had None…

Bill Thompson

The latest report on young people's online music-finding habits from consumer research company The Leading Question has attracted a fair amount of coverage for its headline finding that UK teenagers use of filesharing services has dropped by a third (related links: Leading Question research and Guardian Coverage).

'Speakerbox' polls a thousand young people, so it's a reasonable survey although of course there's a margin of error in any survey and a significant likelihood that the interpretation of the results will be driven by the predispositions of those reading them, demonstrating yet again what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn calls 'theory-dependent observation'.

Music industry pollsters will inevitably look for a silver lining in the cloud of consumer behaviour, and a focus on the growth of legal services is to be expected.

But even with that caveat in mind, there has clearly been a shift in behaviour as more young people find licensed ways to listen to the music they want, watching YouTube videos, streaming songs through MySpace and Spotify and generally using legal avenues to find and enjoy the music of new bands like Florence and the Machine.

Not having access to the full Speakerbox report, as I'm writing this while on holiday in Norfolk, I carried out my own unrepresentative survey of three sixteen year-old boys who happened to be sitting on a nearby sofa playing Soulcalibur IV.

I can exclusively reveal that 66% of teenagers use Spotify but that a whopping 100% still download material illegally if that's the only way they can get it, and that ripping the soundtrack from YouTube videos to put onto your phone or MP3 player is growing in popularity, with 66% of 16 year olds having taken up the practice in the last six months.

These findings fit rather well with more statistically reliable surveys in that they show a continuing desire for music among young people, despite the obvious interests and attractions of gaming and other activities, and they also show that teenagers are aware of and able to take advantage of legal services when they are available.

This should not surprise us, since the only reason that we all started to use file sharing and other unlicensed ways of getting music was because the services that the record companies provided were unwieldy, expensive, limited, intrusive and riddled with absurd and inconvenient copy protection measures like the software that Sony-BMG put on music CDs in 2005 which secretly installed itself on users' computers and could not be uninstalled automatically (related: Sony installs Rootkit).

In common with millions of others I turned to the file sharing networks because the music I wanted to listen to was either completely unavailable or so locked up with restrictive terms as to be effectively inaccessible. And I indulged heavily in other behaviour the BPI wishes to remain illegal by buying CDs and ripping them onto my computer so I could load them onto my iPod (related: CD ripping is illegal).

Of course I've also spent thousands of pounds on vinyl, CDs and downloads over the years, and will probably continue to do so as my love of music is undiminished with age. I really enjoyed hearing Vampire Weekend at the recent Blur concert at Hyde Park, and can't wait to see The Editors play at the Latitude Festival next week.

The network revolution poses the most significant challenge the record industry has faced since the phonograph was invented, and it has been shown wanting in almost every respect.

Last month Geoff Taylor, chief executive of the record industry body the BPI, wrote a column for the BBC News website in which he admitted that the industry had made a mistake ten years ago when they sued the Napster file-sharing service out of existence, but that was just one error among many.

I remember speaking at a record industry conference in 1994 and telling the assembled executives that the day of the CD was over and that they should prepare for digital distribution. They didn't take me seriously, perhaps believing that there was no way the internet of the time could ever be used to deliver music.

Five years later Napster showed them how it could be done and they shut it down. Two years later, in 2001, Apple opened the iTunes Music Store and showed them how to do it legally and profitably, but they still failed to see the real potential and insisted on copy controls and other restrictions.

And only now, fifteen years after the web began to transform the world, are the senior executives for the big record labels acting as if they really appreciate just how deep the change in consumer behaviour brought about by the affordances of these new technologies is going to be.

Unfortunately it might be too late. Behind the shift to licensed music services there is another change that should give the music industry pause: young people seem happy to stream their music, relying on access to the network to ensure they can get the songs they want, when they want it. While my generation was stuck on owning music on vinyl or CD, today's young listeners seem not even to feel the pressure to have a local copy of the mp3 file.

It took the record companies fifteen years to realise that their business wasn't shifting physical units of singles or albums to retailers. They won't have nearly that long to adapt to the new world in which the money comes not from selling mp3 files but from simply making music available for anyone to listen to, anywhere and on any device.

I certainly don't rate their chances of getting it right in time.

By Bill Thompson, Journalist, Commentator and Technology Critic
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Related topics: Law, P2P, Web
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Downsides Dan Campbell  –  Jul 14, 2009 6:09 PM PDT

Unfortunately there are downsides to all this, and not just for the music industry execs (who pretty much deserve any and all misery that has come their way, as much of it indeed was self generated.) Although music acquisition and listening has gotten considerably more convenient, as an experience it has probably declined.  I too am old school having dropped too many dollars on vinyl LPs and 45s (but not 8 tracks fortunatley!).  Back in the day, you bought an album, you got a package, something to look at, sometimes a work of art to enjoy while listening, with lyrics that were large enough to actually read.  And because you were forced to flip the record or tape every 22 minutes (or 4 in the case of a 45), music listening was a concious event, something you often did without doing anything else simultaneously.  It wasn't just background music that passed through your head in a flash while at the gym or on the subway.  You tended to memorize and remember the music much better then than now.  (Think about what you music you remember best - more than likely it is what you grew up on.  It isn't just nostalgia doing that!) It was interesting at the time to read magazines like Audio because reviews of turntables or tape decks were actually interesting and educational, and there were real discernable differences in the quality of such gear and the improvements technologies like Dolby B, C, S or HX-Pro made.  It started to get boring once it all went digital.  We argued for a while about what the best type of D/A converter was for a CD player, but it really wasn't the same anymore.  (Remember the DAT, MiniDisc and DCC competion in the early 90s?)

All the newer technologies have certainly made things more convenient, but we have essentially lost the terms audiophile and hi-fidelity.  Kids today have no idea what high fidelity is or even what music should really sound like, settling for the convenience of recordings compressed down to 1/10th of the original size and played back on cheap PC speakers, laptop speakers or ear buds.  It isn't even close.  If you know the artist and the music well enough, even someone who isn't a sound engineer can hear the differences.  At least with CDs we had corrected the storage degredation issues inherent in vinyl and magnetic tape, even if we had to accept some loss of fidelity given the sampling rate and quantization error.  But with MP3s played back through ear buds and PC speakers, the audio quality is substantially lower.  In that sense, we haven't benefited.

Another downside is the fact that I can no longer really go to a decent record shop and browse anymore.  Small Mom and Pops are pretty much gone save for a few.  Even Tower went under.  We are left with...Best Buy?  Target?  Wal Mart?  Please.  For a true music fan, it really hasn't been the best thing to happen.  (And I could go on and rant about how Wal Mart, one of the largest music retailers now, effectively practices de facto censorship by not selling albums with the (voluntary) warning label, but I'll just leave it at that.)

On the plus side, downloads (paid for of course!) brought back the single, which in the days of 45s was a great thing for those not ready (or with enough cash at a young age) to purchase the albums.  $1 singles were lost with the advent of the CD, which was one of many mistakes made by the music industry.

I could go on but instead I think I'll go pop on my new blue vinyl 50th anniversary recording of Miles Davis Kind of Blue, and I won't do Miles an injustice by running it through my iPod!

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