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Cybernaut

Music industry continuing to suffer

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Digital music sales are going strong. The most recent study suggests that overall music sales are up around 1.6 per cent, with CD sales down around nine per cent in the first quarter of 2011 and with digital music sales up around 17 per cent. The net was a gain of just under two per cent for the industry as a whole, on top of gains in previous quarters.

That's good news for Apple, which is probably closing in on around 20 billion song downloads at this point, but overall the industry isn't doing so well - even with some top peer-to-peer/torrent companies throwing in the towel under the threat of massive lawsuits.

There are a few success stories. The decision to release The Beatles collection on iTunes had a huge impact on online music sales and there are companies and bands that are doing some really innovative things to get fans back. At the end of the day, people are consuming more music than ever.

Everywhere you look there are signs of a healthy industry. Warner Music Group and its library of songs is on the auction block for over $3 billion; Limewire may reach a settlement with the Recording Industry Association of America that would allow people to start trading music again; Pandora is on the verge of an IPO; Amazon, Google and Apple have launched/are launching "cloud" music services that allow you to access your collections from anywhere; Microsoft's Zune Pass (STILL not available in Canada!) is in the process of being re-branded and re-launched and may be the best and cheapest way to enjoy a library of 10-plus million songs. Some of the hottest smart phone apps are music-related, like LastFM, Pandora and, my personal favourite, TuneIn Radio. Concert tickets sales are generally strong, and music festivals are becoming more eclectic to reflect the fact that the audience is sophisticated enough that the average audiophile can appreciate rock, electronic, hip hop and Nu Metal equally.

But while the industry is showing signs of life, experts have pretty much admitted that there is zero chance that it will make a full recovery. We've been so conditioned to paying $1 for a song, $9 for an album, that nobody will ever pay $15 to $20 for an album ever again - even if people paid that much 30 years ago without blinking.

While that's a good thing for customers - and I think music today is as good if not better than it's been in a long time, especially Canadian music - the ready availability and cost of music has a few music fans concerned for the future.

They are concerned because the way we relate to music has changed profoundly, and they feel that music is being devalued by digital distribution. We fill our gadgets with thousands of songs and go about our daily business - the music always on in the background rather than the focus of our attention. We buy individual songs we like instead of whole albums, changing how people follow bands and musicians, and even interpret the songs themselves. We increasingly like our music shallow and easy, to the point where producers essentially crank out the same song over and over again, voices masked beneath autotune, without fans noticing. Check out the similarities between Ke$ha's Tik Tok and Katy Perry's California Gurls on YouTube.com (type in "Tik Tok Califonria Gurls" to get the mash ups).

The bottom line is that we just don't listen to music like we used to, even if we're listening to more of it. Listening to an album used to be something you did, an activity as well as an entertainment. There's no real commitment to listening to the music anymore, it's just there.

"Music is mere background sound for most people," wrote Steve Guttenberg on Cnet (www.cnet.com), "and I think that there's something about digital audio that promotes that type of listening. And if you're not really listening, the music's probably not worth paying for."

That goes a long way to explain why people continue to steal so much music or will buy single songs instead of whole albums - even when the individual songs were conceived as part of a whole album experience, and the bands themselves rely on that income in order to produce more music. According to critics like Guttenberg, music has been devalued by the way we consume it. Even your favourite song in the world, which you might listen to a thousand times, will cost you $1.

As Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message." Digital download music is meant to be cheap and easy and hopelessly compressed compared to analog recordings. It changes the way songs are mixed and marketed, the length of songs and the way bands sound.

The lack of money from music sales forces bands to tour constantly, which is a good thing in a lot of way - except that when bands are on the road, they're not in the studio making more music. Plus, the surest way to break up a group of musicians is to put them on the road together for a year. Or three.

Of course, everybody is the exception in some way and no question it's fun to dabble in different types of music or buy the "best of" any recording artist without spending $20 on entire albums to get the few songs you really like.

Still something has been lost. And like the recording industry's revenues, it will never come back.