• June 22, 2024

The Brief, Disappointing Life Of Downloadable Music

The music industry’s most recent income numbers indicate that a new era—the era of interactive streaming—has begun. The majority of recorded music business revenue currently comes from interactive streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, Napster, Deezer, Tidal, and others, which are also expanding at a rate of more than 50% annually. After the eras of vinyl, tape (8-tracks and cassettes), CDs, and music downloads, we are currently in the fifth age of recorded music.

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Just as fascinating as what the income figures indicate about the future is what they reveal about the past age, the download era. The digital revolution began with music downloads in the middle of the 2000s. However, the data indicates that the download age is probably going to be remembered as a fleeting anomaly — a moment of transition between tangible goods and music available on the cloud that did the business absolutely no good.

The music distribution format that generated the highest income for each of the five eras is displayed on this chart. The vinyl era was the first. Before the beginning of the 20th century, records on vinyl (really shellac) were released, but the vinyl disc industry truly took off in 1925 when the speed of the disc was standardized at 78 rpm, allowing discs from any label to be played on any record player. With the introduction of 45 rpm singles and 33 rpm LPs in the late 1940s, shellac started to give way to vinyl.

The cassette era followed. The mid-1960s saw the invention of eight-track cassettes, which allowed automobiles to play music on demand. Then, in the first part of the 1970s, cassettes started to offer high-quality sound in a more portable format. Cassettes not only replaced 8-tracks in cars but also proved to be a good substitute for vinyl in homes. However, the renowned Sony Walkman in 1979 was the breakthrough that truly elevated the significance of cassettes. This made high-quality, portable, on-demand music accessible to everyone; by 1983, cassettes were the industry’s top earner.

The CD was released in North America in the same year. With its better sound quality, easier access to individual songs, and more capacity, CDs exceeded both vinyl and cassettes. They were extremely popular, in part because a lot of people bought CD versions of digitally restored songs that they had previously had on damaged cassettes or scratchy vinyl. Like cassettes over LPs, CDs increased industry income at conventional rates, but they also catapulted the sector to unprecedented heights.

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At the height of the CD era, in the late 1990s, music downloads first became available. Even though MP3 files often had lower sound quality, downloads were still very portable and transferable and required no storage space at all (except from a hard drive).

However, relatively few legal music downloads were made in the late 1990s. By then, CDs had grown by double digits for fifteen years running, and they had been the most profitable recorded music medium for nine of those years. The record companies had no interest in backing anything that would stymie that momentum. They were particularly wary about endorsing a format that was so readily reproduced without permission. Consequently, the labels retaliated against downloads with litigation, unduly burdensome licensing agreements with new music services, and DRM technology demands, rather than welcoming them.

Steve Jobs was unable to persuade the big labels to support an uncomplicated, appealing approach for music purchases through iTunes until 2004. Revenue from downloads began to rise at the same rapid pace as that of CDs in the 1980s. However, the rise was short-lived, as income began to stagnate in 2008.