Current Events

Are We Nearing the End of Music Ownership?

Photo by Mike Mozart.
Yes, it is kind of funny that you can go to a real store to buy gift cards for digital music.
Many of us were criminals at the end of the 20th century. You can dress up any argument you want about why you got into file sharing in the first place, but if you were one of the millions who downloaded and used Napster and the similar apps that followed, you were a thief. I was just like you, with my own poorly reasoned rationale for how I wasn’t “stealing from artists” but “sticking it to the man.” If you had asked me at the time, I’m sure I would have told you that I was pretty excited to never have to pay for music again.

Because at the time that’s what my limited brain thought that was the only way for the story to play out: with the free music genie out of the bottle, there was no way it was going back in. Good game, music industry, but the music belongs to the people now.

I was stupefyingly wrong. While it’s still possible to get by without paying for music, technology has made it too easy to just buy what you want on a whim, and the combination of nostalgia and modern audiophiles has brought back the market for vinyl. Times are good if you’re the type of person whose favorite day is Friday because that’s when all the new music gets released.

As we head into 2018, record stores feel like they’re as safe as any sort of brick and mortar establishment can be as society starts to buy more and more online, and that’s not the only thing record stores have to worry about. After all, one has to think that we’re getting close to peak vinyl given that book merchants and clothing starts are starting to stock them. It’s something to keep an eye on, for sure.

But what is more interesting to me are the rumors that have been circulating for about two years now that Apple wants to stop selling music. Some suggest that as early as 2019 they could do away with the iTunes music store, and no one knows what the ramifications of that would be for our digital music collections.

It seems wild to think about. Yes, iTunes is hot garbage as a piece of software and buying music through it is not fun at all — honestly, buying music online isn’t fun anywhere except maybe Bandcamp — but with all the infrastructure already in place and millions of users who’ve already bought into their marketplace, why give up on that revenue stream?

Because there’s that other great pillar of music consumption that we’ve yet to discuss: streaming. Streaming is the real reason that I don’t miss Napster. Do Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal have every song under the sun available at a tap? No, of course not, but they have enough that I can look past the fact that I’m on my own if want to listen to Tool at the drop of a hat. Streaming music is so convenient and at such a ridiculous price point that when I’ve had to tighten my belt financially it never even crossed my mind to give it up.

Thirty million people are paying for music streaming services in the United States. It’s one of the few sectors of the music retail business that saw growth in 2017. You know what didn’t have a good year? Digital music sales. Down 24 percent in the last year, people are still willing to buy music, but more and more they’re choosing to spend the $10 it would take to get an album to get a month of a streaming service instead. Unless you’re a Taylor Swift level artist who can hold your music from streaming services for the first few weeks it’s out to drive up your sales, you’re stuck playing the streaming game if fame and fortune are your goal.

Even though I rarely buy music outside of local releases via Bandcamp, I’m weirded out by the idea that we might be slowly sliding toward a post-ownership model of music consumption. There was a version of me that used to love reading every last bit of information in a CD booklet and I still have a ton of CDs rotting away in binders. It’s hard to picture a world where we don’t own any of the media we consume.

But perhaps music ownership is something that I’m just nostalgic for. It’s easy to remember the good and ignore the fact that part of the reason Napster was exciting was because CDs were creeping up to being almost $17 a disc, or that you had to special order CDs from smaller artists because the store in the mall wasn’t going to stock weird emo albums, or that removing CDs from the plastic packaging was a serious pain in the ass.

Whether or not Apple is really thinking about doing away with music sales remains to be seen, but odds are good you’ll continue to hear the rumors indefinitely. Even if sales are down, the one thing we as consumers hate more than anything is being told we can’t buy something. Hell, maybe that should be Apple’s next hustle: saying they’re shutting down the iTunes music marketplace, unless you pay them a subscription fee, making music buying a new luxury activity. What could sound better on a $1,000 phone than a $15 album?