Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Spinning Technology

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Tim Smith, owner of Papa Jazz Records on Greene St., says his store is
not affected by the prevalence of online music and believes that many
of the people downloading online are teenagers and not of the college
age and older set that frequent his store.







To many—vinyl-exclusive audiophiles aside—the slow steady crackle of a vinyl record is a bit of quaint nostalgia. The older among us remember when those warm vinyl crackles and pops gave way to the cassette and later to the CD. These days CDs are rapidly being shown the door, replaced by MP3 files. Still, time-honored institutions that we make take for granted like record stores and even the record album itself continue to subsist in this era of instant downloadable singles. But for how long traditional music production and consumption can coexist with new digital forms remains to be seen.    
 In the first half of 2007 physical CD sales dropped nine percent from 2006. This continues a decline that started in early 2000 when music downloading and file sharing started to rise in popularity. Having announced in April its triumph over Wal-Mart, iTunes, for example, is supplying the masses with a musical store that is never out of stock. Aside from iTunes, there are more than 500 legitimate digital music services worldwide offering us, the enthusiastic and eager consumer, over 6 million tracks – that’s over four times the stock of a music megastore. You have the option to pay per song or you can pop for the “all you can eat buffet” and pay a monthly fee. These online stores appeal to common sense by asking the question, “Why, with the ever climbing gas prices, would you drive across town on a slight chance that you may find what you are looking for when you can connect and click and have the tunes available in seconds?”
Tim Smith, owner of Papa Jazz Records on Greene St., says his store is not affected by the prevalence of online music and believes that many of the people downloading online are teenagers and not of the college age and older set that frequent his store.
“I may have one copy of Jessica Simpson lying around,” Tim says, “but that’s such a small percentage of what we do.”
According to a digital music summary done by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) this year, digital music totaled an estimated $3 billion in 2007, up 40 percent from the previous year.  Single track downloads grew by 53 percent to 1.7 billion downloads, the federation said. In the U.S. alone—the world’s largest digital music market, according to the IFPI—online and mobile sales take up 30 percent of all revenues. Worldwide digital sales take up 15 percent of the global music market, a four percent increase from 2006 and up from nothing in 2003. In the U.S., online and mobile sales now account for 30 percent of all revenues.
The digital phenomenon has made music even more tangible to the music enthusiast. It’s the perfect date with no commitment at the end since you can sample before you buy.
But what about the album in its entirety? Is it doomed for extinction with all the singles downloads? To say nothing of album art. Many times the cover art is just as desirable as the tracks on the disk. Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of Patti Smith for Horses, design team  Hipgnosis’s Pink Floyd covers and of course Andy Warhol’s art for The Velvet Underground have all become part of rock-n-roll iconography. iTunes’ has begun to address the issue with a ‘Complete My Album’ feature that allows consumers and fans to turn their individual downloaded tracks into a complete album—including artwork—at a reduced price by giving them full credits for every track they have already bought from that album. Similarly Sony BMG is working on promoting the full album experience by having special bonus content in the form of very high quality MP3 files. As the physical CD appears to be fading, for now at least the concept of the “album” seems to remain largely unchanged.
One thing that seems apparent: the music industry is constantly reinventing itself, changing alongside the technology that shapes it. Progress equals change, and sometimes it’s a mixed bag. Love it or hate it, digitized music is here to stay. At least for now.

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