Digital Music. Part 1 - Preface: The Issues

The future of digital music is an area that interests me VERY much. Seeing as how my life is so steeped in music, how it unfolds will quite literally have a significant impact on me. How we pay for music, how we find it and how we interactive with it are all issues that are being played out before our very eyes. The potential for innovation is huge. But do we really need change? CDs and vinyls do the job incredibly well. They give you great sound quality, something physical to treasure and of course, the ability to rip your music to a computer and beyond. Do we really need to buy music digitally?

Yes! The rise of "ipod culture" is proof of the power and popularity of having music in a digital format. It makes plenty of sense, for both buyers and sellers, to make music available in this format directly. That doesn't mean CDs and vinyls should be replaced. Instead, digital downloads should become a third tier. Vinyls for superior sound quality, digital music for ultimate flexibility and CDs for a bit of both. Yet the problem with this model is that as it stands, digital downloads are anything but flexible. Bogged down by DRM and propriety formats, they have become an option for only the most conscientious (and brave) consumers. In their place, peer2peer sharing has flourished and, like it or not, is here to stay.

From an ethical viewpoint, the issue of illegal downloads seems simple: get rid of them. But it's far more complex. It's a fact that illegal downloads offer many benefits. I for one would have severely undernourished music tastes if I had to pay for everything I wanted to listen to. By not paying for music, listeners are given far more freedom to experiment and discover new material. While this gains artists exposure and the potential to earn money from shows and future releases, it remains a dubious system.

To be honest, I don't think there is a solution. Someone will always miss out. Listeners need to be able sample music and artists need to make money. Finding the balance between the two is the tricky part. If you restrict access to your music, listeners may overlook it. Yet if you make it freely available, you may never see a cent from some of your biggest fans. This is an area that I’m especially interested in, because I haven’t got a clue what to do about it. You can come up with solutions like paying for music retrospectively, depending on how much you listen to it, but would it ever work? It’s a bit a like communism, great in theory, but...

Perhaps most important thing that needs to take place before we’ll make any progress is digital download services need to be improved. You know something’s wrong when those who try to do the right thing are punished, not rewarded, for their effort. Hassles and limitations mean that legal downloads are an inferior option, even before you consider costs. Thankfully, these restrictions are gradually being removed, but it will still only bring legal downloads up to a level equal with illegal ones. At this point, not everyone will make the switch because illegal downloads will still be free. Legal downloads need to offer something more than their illegal alternatives. They need to become a superior product before any major shift will be seen. The big question is how to do this.

As you can see, there’s plenty here to think about. There's nothing I love more than dreaming up ways to solve these problems, but with so many different factors to coming in to play, my ideas change daily. Even after countless hours of consideration, I’m still unsure what the best way forward is. But before I go on about how the future should look, I think it’s important to look at the present. You see, for all the whinging I’d done about downloading music legally, the truth was that I'd never actually tried it. Not once. So I’ve put my money where my mouth is and tried out a few different services. It’s certainly not comprehensive, but at least I’ve got something to back my claims up with. In the next post I’ll begin delivering my verdict. Until then…

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