Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Digital Downloads v Hard Copy CD's

Recently, in the LDSMusicians yahoo group, we were talking about the changes that were coming along in the business models of the music industry. I posted this, and thought it might be interesting enough to share here:

There are a number of "consequences" or better: "results" of digital downloads.

1--The return of the single as the primary distribution model. A bit of history: Back in the early days of recording, with the cyliders that the edison machine recorded on, then later the grammophone, and the turntables that played 78 rpm discs, you could only get one song onto a recording. There simply wasn't enough space for any more. They were sold individually, as "singles". In fact, I believe that most of the 78's were one-sided... I might be wrong on that, tho...

Then, when an artist released a bunch of songs, they were packaged in binders and the pages were paper sleeves for the discs. That's where the term "Album" originally came from.

There were also the 45 rpm singles with the big hole in the center. Those were big in the '50's and '60's, but also into the '70's. Quite often new acts on a label would record two or three songs, and release two of them as a single, as a bit of test marketing.

Then with the advent of the "LP" which stood for "Long Play" you could suddenly get about 20 minutes a side. From that point on, you could still get singles, but by and large, people bought albums. Bands and artists would go into the studio and a month or four later come out with a batch of songs, and release it as an LP album. The label would choose 2-4 songs from that CD to release as "singles" but more and more, that was more in terms of what songs would be released for radio play, rather than what songs would actually be pressed and sold as singles.

Various tape versions of the vinyl LP's came out, first the 8-track, which suffered from having to change from one program to the next, sometimes in the middle of a song, and then later the cassette, which, for a long time dominated car stereos.

By the time that the CD came along, pressed vinyl singles were pretty much faded out, and the CD did a pretty good job of killing it. Sure, you could buy CD and even cassette singles, but those were more anomalies than anything else.

So, through the late 80s and most of the 90s, CD's ruled. And so did albums.

Then, finally, with the advent of digital downloads, people are once again making their purchases in single quantities. I'm seeing two long-term impacts of this on the way music is produced. First of all, gradually more and more artists will record a few songs at a time. They'll take a few weeks off touring to go into the studio and cut a few songs. Those will be released as singles as the artist continues touring. I think that eventually, the idea of releasing albums will fade to nostalgic retrospectives and compilations (like "Greatest Hits" collections).

One of the results of this will be that only "hits" will be recorded and released In other words, the off-the-beaten-path songs that are more artsy which were the old "deep album cuts" will probably not get recorded. The labels, measuring success by singles, rather than by albums, will probably not want to release anything that won't generate millions in returns.

As a result, the people that like that kind of music will probably turn more and more to the indies, who have long been the type to look deeper and harder into the music anyway.

While that will mean that the artistic non-hit style of song will probably fade from the mainstream, the fluff album filler will also. That's a good thing.

Another result of the advent of digital delivered singles is the final and complete demise of album cover art. Some of the greatest works of contemporary art were the covers of LP's, IMHO, and I'll be sad to see that go. My bet, though, is that it will be replaced by the graphics on the artist's website.

Mark Hansen


  1. Mark:

    Have you read the Wired article on The Long Tail?

    It's a must for those in the music industry (or any content industry).

  2. This was a fascinating article. Very speculative, but based on good statistics and research.


  3. > The labels, measuring success by singles, rather than
    > by albums, will probably not want to release anything
    > that won't generate millions in returns.

    One thing to remember, though, is that the marginal cost of distributing a song recording is headed toward zero. Disk space costs are already minimal -- I can by a 200GB hard drive capable of storing 66,000 three-minute songs for $90, which is a storage cost of 0.135 cents per song. Bandwidth costs continue to drop.

    For major artists, there is no reason for the labels not to release anything the artists record. Even if only a few thousand people pay 99 cents each for a download of Britney Spears burping the alphabet to a killer dance beat, the labels will make money.

    I do think that albums will remain as a marketing mechanism, though -- a bundle of songs that you can buy more cheaply than buying the songs as singles.

  4. I won't be surprised to see digital music files with embedded artwork before too long. You're right, the cover and graphics convey much about the art of the music contained within the album. There are, undoubtedly, many others that like the artwork and I bet it will become the norm in digital music files in another few years.

    My grandfather was a professional musician. He played in the 20's, 30's, 40's, 50's. He played guitar and sang backup for Bing Crosby. He was in Bunny Berigan's band.

    He had his own radio show in Philly, and even had some of his own albums released. Some day I would love to release pieces his work digitally--I don't want anything in return, other than for others to have the ability to enjoy it as well (obviously, subject to copyright, etc). And that's another great thing about the digital music age.

  5. That was one of the points in that "Long Tail" article discussed in a previous comment. That the hard-to-find and the out-of-print can now be a big market share, instead of ignored. And that having those works available digitally can be for more than just archiving.




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