EntertainmentMusicThe music industry: from gold records to digital downloads

The music industry: from gold records to digital downloads

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Going down the street with the discman  hanging from his belt, an ordinary young man from the nineties was listening to music recently bought at the record store. A few years later, the CD player was gathering dust in a box in the closet, music was streaming over the Internet, and the record store had closed.

Most analysts mark the year 1999 as the precise moment in which the music industry changed forever. After decades of buying music in physical format (from the 8-track cartridges of the sixties to the compact discs of the nineties), three letters revolutionized everything: www. The arrival of the Internet opened up a new world in communication and consumption. An intangible world, developed in virtual space. Untouchable and at the same time within everyone’s reach. The network became the meeting place for those who wanted to freely share knowledge and content. And music was content that was highly demanded by new Internet users.

60s, 70s and 80s: the prehistory of the music industry

Before we reached the moment that consumers enjoy today, where everything is just a click away from us, it took decades of cumbersome devices to listen to music and continuous trips to the record store to buy. If during the forties and fifties music magically came out of a box called radio, with the advent of 8-track cartridges the way of listening to songs changed radically. The simple system of a magnetic tape that did not stop turning became a commercially successful item from 1964, when Ford included a player for this type of cartridge in its cars.

And while the 8-tracks were enjoyed in the cars , at home the turntables played the famous LPs (LP, long play), long-playing records moved at 33 revolutions per minute and with 20-25 minutes of music on each side of the vinyl. Between 1950 and 1980 LPs were the predominant format for publishing recorded music. However, they were very fragile, and care had to be taken not to scratch them. In the early eighties, cassette tapes dethroned LPs. In the 21st century, its memory has been recovered with a certain nostalgia, and there are many who prefer to buy music on vinyl. That romanticism led to the sale of 3.5 million LPs in the United States alone in 2009. It is said that the real music is in them, and that they certainly sound better in flavor than singles from iTunes or Spotify.

Vinyl records were the original format in which some of the most important albums were released, with cover artwork that has already gone down in cultural history, such as the famous 1973 The Dark Side of the Moon . Sometimes, inside those thin cardboard folders there was not only a vinyl record, but also a booklet with the lyrics of the songs.

The technical evolution made a new way of hosting music reach the market in a massive way. Although the Philips company developed them for the first time in 1962, cassette tapes became popular from 1978. During the eighties they were the predominant means of consuming music. They housed two programs of two songs each, arranged on two sides (side A and side B). To go from one side to the other, you had to remove the tape from the cassette player and put it back in, turning it over. Today it seems like an inconvenience, but in his day it was the most modern technology.

In 1979 Sony released the Walkman , which allowed you to play cassettes anywhere. The music went out onto the streets and millions of young people rushed to buy walkmans and cassettes. Famous is the dispute that Sony had with Andreas Pavel for the rights to create a portable music player.

Cassette tapes are one of the symbols of the eighties, and they were also consumed during much of the nineties. Currently, they have been revived on the soundtrack of the film Guardians of the Galaxy . In 2016, 129,000 cassette tapes were sold in the United States. A very small number compared to the 13 million vinyls bought by American music lovers.

1990: the past of the recording industry

There was a time when, to listen to a favorite song, you had to buy an entire record. Surely eight or nine of the twelve songs on that CD were not of interest to the user, but there was no way to listen to just one song. The creation of playlists designed by each consumer was still far away.

The idea for the compact disc (CD ) was born from a collaboration between Philips and Sony, tech giants who had been working for decades to improve the way music was stored. In 1982 the first CDs began to be commercialized, and in 1984 the discman was launched on the market (like the walkman for cassettes, but this time for CDs). Magnetic tapes gave way to digital technology to contain audio tracks. The quality of the music consumed increased considerably. By 1992 CDs were already selling more than cassettes and vinyl combined. That year Nirvana’s Nevermind reached number one on the Billboard 200 list, as the best-selling album. A new era had begun for music.

If the 8-tracks and the cassettes had used the magnetic tape to record the sound, the compact discs used optical discs on which a laser beam recorded the music. DVDs (1995) and Blu-ray (2002) were developed in the same way. Compact discs were a digital sound recording system, so it was of a higher quality. However, the records could also be easily scratched, they were brittle like vinyl.

CDs are considered the last format of the so-called “Album Era”. Many music critics and analysts speak of this time to refer to the period between 1960 and the early 2000s, when the album was the main format when it came to consuming music (in different physical forms: vinyl, cassette, compact disc …). At present we could speak in contrast to the «Era of the single », as this is the most widespread musical object of consumption. A vast majority of consumers buy  singles , not albums. A single can cost from 20 cents on iTunes. An album exceeds 7 dollars.

1999: the year the future arrived

In 1999 record sales reached their all-time high, with 600 million people worldwide buying at least one physical album. The recording industry was in good health, and had several years of increased sales. It is estimated that that year 40,000 million dollars in record sales were generated. The CD was king and the record stores were full. The 1990s had been great for the industry.

But 1999 was also the year Napster was born, a word that resonates today in the heads of many entrepreneurs, producers and creators and appears in their nightmares. Napster was the first service that allowed sharing and downloading of music in mp3 format on the Internet. Undoubtedly, it was an archaic and non-mass Internet, but by 2001 the web already had 26 million active users, downloading music for free and illegally. A true revolution.

Quickly the record companies and several groups (including Metallica) sued Napster for violating copyright. The creators of the web defended themselves by claiming that they had only created a platform, a tool, and that it was the users who were freely sharing the music. Even so, the ruling sentenced Napster to pay a million-dollar fine and the web closed in 2002. But the Internet was a wild habitat, and you can’t put doors on the field. Dozens of content sharing platforms quickly emerged: LimeWire (2002), eMule (2000), Audiogalaxy (2002), eDonkey (2006), Gnutella (2000), Kazaa (2001)… Then a continuous war broke out between the record companies and organizations of the music industry against the thousands of websites that, in every country in the world, were being created month after month. TheThe Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) managed to shut down some of them (LimeWire, eDonkey…), but victory in some battles did not mean the end of the war. Piracy and illegal downloading of music was going to be the main problem in the sector during the 21st century.

Faced with this panorama of anarchy in the virtual space and with record sales in a rapid and continuous decline (from the 40,000 million dollars generated in 1999 it went to barely 10,000 million in 2009), some opted to devise new -and legal- ways music buying and selling. In 2007 the Radiohead group posted their In Rainbows album on the Internet with the option of downloading it for free or making a voluntary payment of the amount that the user deemed appropriate. The album was downloaded 1.2 million times, with only a third of users deciding to pay. The average amount of those who paid was $2.90. The public had gotten used to not paying for music.

Music storage also experienced a revolution when Steve Jobs introduced a new device in October 2001: the iPod. In the first decade of the 21st century, this was the most popular tool in the world for listening to music. By the end of 2010, 275 million units had been sold. At about a hundred euros per device, the business turned out well for Apple. The first iPod had ten hours of battery life and could hold a thousand songs.

With the mass use of smartphones among the population, the use of the iPod quickly began to lose its meaning: mobile phones already offered the same possibilities and tools as music players. Since 2014 Apple has not provided sales data for iPods.

2001 the apple company released iTunes, a legal platform for downloading and buying music. By 2013 iTunes had 500 million users, who had downloaded 25 billion songs globally and spent an average of $40 a year. A true revolution in the music industry. For the first time, the possibility was offered for people, in a massive and legal way, to buy music, song by song, creating their own playlists and transporting that music on different physical devices (computer, mp3 player, mobile phone…).

2014: the year the present arrived

Billboard magazine revolutionized its famous ‘Billboard 200’ list in 2014 to include single sales through digital downloads and streaming . These two new ways of consuming music were added to the sale of physical music (mainly CDs and vinyl) to form a heterogeneous industry in terms of the available possibilities.

For decades it was only possible to consume physical music in different formats (8 tracks, vinyl, cassettes, CDs). Now, in the present, it is already possible to consume music without physical support. As a result, album sales have fallen dramatically. This new reality has radically changed the music industry, and the historic best-selling album charts have had to be renamed “Most Popular Albums.” Certifying bodies such as the US RIAA or magazines such as Billboard have adopted a methodology based on the “album equivalent unit” to continue accounting for the music consumed in an orderly manner. Now digital downloads (legal) and streamingthey equate to physical sales as follows: 10 downloads equals one album sold, as does 1,500 plays. It is a risky methodology, but necessary to be able to record the state of the industry.

These changes are based on an undeniable reality. In 2014,  Uptown Funk was the first song to be streamed more than two million times in a week, which was repeated for ten consecutive weeks. In September 2014, the Irish band U2 made a deal with Apple to release their album Songs of Innocence for free on iTunes. At that time, 500 million users of the music platform could listen to U2 songs without buying the album. In return Apple promised 100 million dollars to the group. Changes in the forms of consumption that the public and users do not question and have internalized and normalized.

In the United States in 2017, sales of CDs and vinyl produced more revenue ($1.5 billion) than digital downloads ($1.3 billion). However, nothing compared to what the music industry earned thanks to streaming : $5.7 billion. But what is streaming really about?? The English word is literally translated into Spanish as “transmission”, and in the field of the music industry it refers to all those songs listened to through the Internet without having to download them. Streaming music consumers do not own songs or albums, have not purchased or downloaded them. They don’t have them on their shelves as CDs or vinyl or on their computers or players as mp3 files. But they are available to you online, constantly, to listen to over and over again. It’s a legal way to consume music, and creators and groups earn money for each stream played.

Entire albums and millions of songs are available on streaming platforms , very popular today and with a growing audience. With the Internet network spread over many countries in the world, the number of people with streaming music listening options is huge. You don’t even need a computer at home: it’s enough to have a mobile phone connected to the Internet. The next step is to download a streaming platform and start listening to the music you want. Spotify is arguably the most popular service in the world today for streaming music , although Apple ‘s streaming service has more users in the United States.

This new way of conceiving music consumption, without having to buy records or download songs, seems to have delighted the general public. Currently there is no doubt that streaming is the form that produces the most income for the music industry, and has forced record companies, producers, businessmen, artists and groups to adapt to the new era.

There are some who have tried to resist the streaming dictatorship . Taylor Swift removed her music from Spotify saying: “Music is art, and art is an important and unusual thing. Important and unusual things have value, and therefore should be paid for. In my opinion music should not be free. However, the future destroys everything and Swift returned to put all her music for free on Spotify the same day Katy Perry published a new album on the platform. It’s easier to navigate with the current.

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