It’s no secret that digital music sales are down, and the guilty party seems obvious: the streaming economy ushered in by the advent of streaming services. The only question now is the same one that’s dogged the industry for the last 15 years — namely, how do we stop the bleeding?
In a recent column for Forbes, Bobby Owsinski referenced unnamed sources who suggest that, in an effort to shore up flagging download sales, Apple will soon introduce a hi-res option for audiophile iTunes customers. It’d be more expensive, of course, but that isn’t what Owsinski sees as the biggest problem with the idea. As he puts it:
[T]he majority of buyers probably aren’t interested in the higher fidelity in the first place, and would rather pay the least amount of money possible if they choose to make a purchase at all. Then the fact of the matter is that many pop-oriented tracks aren’t recorded that well to begin with, or use distorted samples or loops that probably won’t provide much of a difference in the end for the average listener. Buy one hi-res track that doesn’t seem worth it and you’ll probably never buy another again.
There’s obviously a market for hi-res audio, hence the eyebrow-raising $6 million sum raised during pre-orders for Neil Young’s much-ballyhooed (but still unheard) PonoMusic player. Still, I’m inclined to agree with Owsinski that a 24-bit upgrade would prove to be “only a temporary ace in the hole” for Apple at best — and not just because a substantial portion of the digital marketplace is perfectly happy with the audio quality they already have.
The real problem here is that the industry has saturated consumers with so much music that they’ve outpaced demand — and given that we’re talking about a product that’s hardwired into the fundamental neuroanatomy of our happiness and well-being, that’s saying an awful lot. For casual consumers, there’s basically no reason to buy music anymore; if you want to hear something, you can probably find it through any one of a dozen free or subscription-based services, and even on the off chance that you can’t, those services are more than happy to recommend something else to keep you distracted.
There are more than 20 million songs floating around on Spotify alone — so many that there’s an entire service dedicated to serving up only the tracks no one else has ever played. I don’t know how many music videos are kicking around on YouTube, but the site claims to be taking in 100 hours of video uploads every minute, so you can imagine — and have most likely taken full advantage — of the free and easy songs on offer over there.
There’s a disconnect here, one that I alluded to in my review of the recent 78 Project compilation. To *ahem* quote myself: “Music isn’t supposed to beg for us to love it; it’s supposed to dance away, just out of reach, and make us want it before it gives in.” The problem, in other words, isn’t that we aren’t getting enough of anything — including audio fidelity (sorry, Neil). It’s that all the artificial gateways that used to stand between our ears and outright gluttony have been demolished, and as much as we still enjoy talking about/curating/streaming/sometimes downloading music, it’s rare for us to be reminded of what it’s like to crave it.
We need that craving. I grew up in the throes of a love/hate relationship with that feeling, and if you’re a music lover too, you probably know exactly what I mean — that horrible impatience you’d feel after spotting something cool on the new release sheets and realizing you had to wait weeks to get your hands on it. And when release day finally arrived, yes, you actually held the album, because music came housed in a tangible object that you unpackaged and could pore over while you were supposed to be doing your homework or interacting with other human beings.
Hi-res downloads won’t bring that back, and neither will exhaustive immersion boxes that drench the listener with every goddamn squeak and sigh from the studio sessions. They’re fun fetish objects for hardcore aficionados, but they don’t get at the root of the problem; they don’t restore some semblance of equilibrium to the supply/demand equation that drives our relationship with goods and services. It’s just more overload in a marketplace that, to cop a phrase from Paul Simon, groans every time it registers another birth.
The music industry’s story over the last 15 years or so has been one of genies continually being loosed from bottles, and the streaming economy is just the latest. There’s no going back. And I don’t have enough intelligence or foresight to figure out a way to permanently re-induce that craving, although I think places like PledgeMusic offer a fairly compelling alternative by using artist updates and bonus gewgaws to inflate anticipation for a release.
I’m really not sure there’s a single organic measure to reverse the casual consumer’s steady disassociation from music, but I do think the Wu-Tang Clan struck at the heart of the issue fairly brilliantly when they announced plans to release one copy of a new double album. De La Soul followed suit this week, announcing an extremely limited 100-copy vinyl run of their new Smell the D.A.I.S.Y. project, copies of which will be randomly hidden in various record stores. They’re gimmicks, but they’re smart ones; scarcity encourages demand, even when it’s artificially created.
The key, then — if there is one — is to make people feel that by buying something, they’re getting something they can’t have anywhere else. Some artists have attempted to do this by keeping their music off streaming services entirely, and the debate over whether that’s a viable tactic rages on. What might be a more sensible approach — at least for artists whose careers are big enough to make decisions like this matter — is to tier track listings according to format, making it so streaming customers get some bowdlerized version of “the album” (including your singles, natch), downloaders get “the album” plus something extra, and the physical formats come with everything.
That isn’t anything new, of course; I have a vinyl copy of the new Toad the Wet Sprocket record that comes with LP-only bonus tracks, and there’s a growing list of artists releasing special iTunes editions with extra stuff like videos. But right now, those tactics are randomly deployed, and in order for them to have real impact, I’d argue that they need to be standard industry practice — like the old days when artists had to give up one or two bonus tracks for the Japanese market. If consumers are conditioned to think of streaming as less than downloading/buying instead of just another (and, frankly, more convenient) alternative, then perhaps the industry can begin rebuilding our relationship with music. Until then, the next big thing is always just a Kickstarter campaign away.