Internet killed the radio star

02 February 2012 - 11:54 By Pearl Boshomane

A lot of music debates that refuse to die centre on digital – its ownership, impact, price...

CDs. File photo.
CDs. File photo.
Image: Frumbert (Flickr)
CDs. File photo.
CDs. File photo.
Image: Frumbert (Flickr)

And it matters because as quickly as CD sales are plummeting, online music consumption is climbing.

People are even starting to pay for digital music too, with that market growing by 7% in 2011.  

One of the reasons getting music online has become such a big thing is because it has taken away the middle man. There’s no music store, record company, or distributor whose employees have to be paid. There’s no struggle to find what you’re looking for.

There are few things I hate more than going to a music shop and having to order an album I want, for which I’ll – in most cases – be overcharged. (I once paid R280 for an In Flames CD and I recently forked out R400 for a Joanna Newsom album). Then, after ordering the CD, you’ll have to wait for a few weeks – if you’re lucky – before it arrives. I once ordered a CD from a chain music store and they called me three months later to tell me it had just arrived. I laughed and hung up.

Digital music has made the consumer impatient – why wait when I can have it now? It’s so easy, so convenient, so practical.

But is it ethical? Not for the artist, but there is the belief that record companies have been ripping consumers off for decades, so it’s our turn to run things now. Stealing music seems to be a lot of people’s idea of storming the Bastille.

But the Internet has given artists power, especially unsigned ones. The Weeknd, for instance, gives away his music for free online and only played his first live show after the critically-adored House of Balloons was released. His third mixtape – Echoes of Silence – became a hot topic for ‘cool kids’ all over the globe, trending on Twitter and sending music critics from Pitchfork Media to Billboard into a frenzy.

But what happens when he starts charging for his music – as he has every right to? Will his sales do well because people are already familiar with him and love him? Or will the sales suffer because his audience is used to getting free stuff?

And therein lies the trap. People can do whatever they want with an artist’s music and pirate it on a far larger scale than before.

When Radiohead – an established, popular, acclaimed band who have sold millions of albums – adopted a pay-as-you-like strategy for the online release of their seventh album In Rainbows, most people chose to pay £0.00 for it. And why wouldn’t they? Many have a sense of entitlement when it comes to acquiring music, and don’t particularly care for the hard work that goes behind its making.

Long gone are the days of dubbing cassettes from your friends or from the radio. Gone are the days of ripping a CD onto your PC. Now you just log onto a file-sharing or torrent site and click ‘download’. The only payment is the data you’re using. Heck, all you have to do is Google whatever you’re looking for plus ‘rar’ or ‘zip’ and if it’s out there, Google will find it. Done.

Trent Reznor once said in an interview that the advent of digital music has seen consumers treat music like a magazine rather than a novel (like it used to be in the past), and I agree.

When I was in high school, I would spend my allowance on CDs. I remember the process: enter music shop, browse for hours, go to listening station, decide which album to take home, pay for it, get home, put in CD player and enjoy.

If I didn’t like it, I would eventually – I’d trekked quite a bit to get this CD and had paid my precious allowance for it. I had to get my money’s worth.

Then I got an iPod and everything changed. It was gradual, of course. I still bought CDs religiously for about two years afterwards, before living more and more on the Internet. Online became my new music store – sites whose names I no longer remember turned into my new Musica. My friends and I shared music on a larger scale.

Now I, like millions around the globe, have gigabyte upon gigabyte of music. You’d think this would make people listen more to music, but I don’t think it does. I have more music than ever, but I listen to it less than I did before. There’s so much of it and I, to a large extent, have very little or almost no emotional attachment to it. They’re just little folders on my laptop, on my hard drive, on several memory sticks that are scattered all over the place.

So while going digital has increased music’s reach, it’s also decreased its impact.

After all, who still reads last month’s pop culture magazine? I don’t.