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By Fergal Ransom


Since we have been able to record sound, the media on which we are able to play back and listen to music have rapidly developed. Each of these advancements has in turn been seen to affect the way in which we listen to and interact with music. The theory of this effect has previously been suggested by Marshall McLuhan (1969) where he proposes the idea that “the medium is message”. This is best summarised by Roger Johnson (1991, pg.12) who states:

The tools of our discourse, or the means with which we communicate, have an overriding impact on what we are able to say. The message is not somehow separate from the medium, rather they are one-in-the-same system.

Johnson uses this theory to discuss the number of places where electronic media have affected our relationship with music and offers insight into the importance of understanding electronic media for many inside and outside the music industry. Yet, he only briefly focuses on the effect of media designed for music consumption, focusing much of his writings on working practices within the music industry, negating the major social and cultural impacts it would have on the wider musical community. I would suggest that, at no time was this more prevalent than during media changes of the latter half of the 20th century. The vinyl record, the cassette tape and the compact disk, all heralded new possibilities and effects, such as personal choice in music listening, portability and affordability (Burgess 2014). The compact disk then, finally signalled the music consumer’s entry into the digital world. Music no longer was held in a purely physical, analogue medium, it was now an integration between data and machine, the full effects of which were only being understood towards the end of the century. Now at the forefront of the 21st century, this article focuses on looking at how recent advancements of digital media used for music consumption, have affected the way in which we view and interact with music. This will be covered from a variety of different angles, in order to understand the impact they have had on the different parties within the music industry.

Digital media at the turn of the century

As mentioned, towards the end of the 20th century the music industry was increasingly moving toward digitalisation, with compact disks being the only medium to see continuous positive growth over throughout the 1990s (RIAA 2017). By the year 2000, 72.8% of recorded music sales were down to the sale of compact disks alone (IPFI 2001). Meanwhile, recorded sales for cassettes continued to fall, reaching their lowest sales records to date, only accounting for 23.2 percent of sales (IFPI 2001).  After looking at these figures it would be rational to assume that compact disks, were at this point in time, the only contending medium for music. This continued growth of disk sales, and the continued fall of all other commercially available mediums supports this theory and even suggests industry growth. With a strong market, and people seemingly content with the cycle of paying and listening to music. Our relationship with music remained the same as it had done since the 1950s, with our interactions, access and views, being curated by the record companies. However, the fact that the market fell by 1.3% in value growth and 1.2% in unit growth and continued to fall (IFPI 2001), raises the question as to why people didn’t want to invest money in music.

The effects of piracy and the introduction of online file sharing

The answer: music piracy. Unfortunately, upon entering the digital world the theory of duplicating music became much easier and it was inevitable that some people with access to a computer would duplicate music files. But it wasn’t until the mainstream use of the internet and the creation of peer to peer (P2P) file sharing sites, such as Napster, that the piracy would become widespread. Now anybody with access to the internet was able to download music for free. What then was it that had changed people’s attitude towards music, that made them prefer to steal it, then buy it legitimately?  On this topic there have been many theories. According to one study (Al-Rafee and Cronan 2006), there are a number of factors that affect a person’s attitude towards digital piracy. The conclusion of this study revealed that the main reasons were that: digital media is overpriced; there was no fear of getting caught; and that ethically speaking it was not deemed as an ‘important’ issue, when compared to other choices. This suggests that the main driving force behind music piracy is price (Gopal et al. 2004). One suggestion as to why people feel music is overpriced is offered by Richard Burgess (2014), who discusses the market’s preference for singles over albums. He notes the way in which people who only wanted to buy a specific song would be deterred by the fact that labels were pushing sales of albums containing music other than the desired track. It was this demand for an inexpensive singles market that became one of the main driving forces that would, in 2001, lead to the landmark creation of the Apple iTunes Store (Burgess 2014).  However not all are agreed with the idea that everybody involved in piracy shared the same ideals. An article by Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf (2007), gave the opinion that piracy wasn’t primarily to blame for loss of sales, as they noticed that customers used piracy as a way to sample music, before then going out and buying it. The first signs that people wanted to invest more of their own opinions on music rather than accepting the record labels claims.

The digital format market and music proliferation

Piracy however was only an introduction into the world of digital media formats. A point which the record companies at the time had failed to notice, playing off the market demand for digital music files as an unwanted component of piracy. So, it was the outside the industry company, Apple, who realised this demand and used it to form one of the first legitimate digital music download sites, iTunes.  By offering people what they wanted Apple managed to capture the market. Yet iTunes was in fact a loss leader with Apple using its attractively cheap music market to drive sales of their compatible music player the iPod (Locke 2009), in effect returning to the original gramophone sales model the music industry was founded on (Burgess 2014).  This astounding development in the music market and industry caused a huge change to how business was conducted. The idea that only the record companies could give people access to the industry was constantly being tested as access to the market became easier through unregulated online platforms. This coupled with the rise of digital media editing software such as computer-based DAWs would lead to the unprecedented influx of creators and retailors entering the markets.  Of course, whilst this may seem like a good idea, it is also the beginning steps of what was described by Jacques Attali (1985), as the “crisis of proliferation” (p.130). Whereby, the market would become flooded with music and collapse, due to the devaluation of the musical commodity caused by the overwhelming similarity and availability of music. His theory may also not be far from coming true with the streaming service Spotify, in 2018, boasting a collection of over forty million tracks in its library alone (Spotify 2018).

Portability and integration

Of course, it isn’t just in the digital domain where digital media has had an effect on us. The physical interfaces through which we interact, play their own part. As Moore’s Law predicted, the power to size ratio of computing power has led to the decrease in size of digital devices. This in turn has led to an increase in the portability of digital music players, with the first major success being Apple’s iPod, allowing people to listen to their entire music collection from any location. This is something which has broadened society’s uses of music in everyday life, with traveling and working and relaxing as the top activities during which people choose to listen to music (IFPI 2018).  The successful design of the iPod was furthered by the arrival of the first smartphones. Being extremely adaptable and practical for multiple jobs the smartphone quickly became a device that everybody wanted and needed. With the ability to play music as well it quickly became the number one music device with 75% of users adopting a smartphone for listening (IFPI 2018). Also, with the rise of internet connectivity, downloading has become quick and easy, with many services simply streaming media and content to your devices. It was this advancement that allowed the creation of the music streaming application.

Streaming services

As we discussed earlier the main reason that piracy took off was due access to lots of music without the drawback that you couldn’t pay for it all. Which is why the streaming services model of supplying access to lots of music which the consumer wouldn’t be able to afford has been so effective, so much so, that in 2018, 86% of people are choosing to listen to music through streaming (IFPI 2018).  The success of the access-based business model stems from an idea of “unending consumption” (Arditi 2018), whereby we will never be able to fully listen to the entirety of the music the site contains leading you to always want to listen to more. The model also keeps you using it, by the fact that you won’t have access to the music once you leave due to the fact you don’t own it. It is therefore the simple decision that it is easier and more practical to remain within the model than repurchase the files you have access to. However, as the streaming market grows sales of other media will reduce, in turn making harder for listeners to be able to own, let alone, purchase their own music.

New market ideals

One problem with the new markets however is that although popular they have not been profitable enough for many artists to make a successful career out of. With the advertisement-based revenue system used by some subscription services has led to many artists such as Taylor Swift refusing to use them in protest to unfair amount they receive (Butterly 2014). So instead, artists have been seen to be increasingly moving towards live music, merchandising and advertising revenue for income (Klein, Meier and Powers 2017). In this regard the music itself has become a form of advertising, with the artist forming a brand which consumers buy into. This has led to what an increasing level of commercialism, an issue which Theodor Adorno (Adorno 1978) had warned of describing it as “the sacrifice of individuality, which accommodates itself to the regularity of the successful, the doing what everybody does” (pg.280). This view has become increasingly common in over the past few years with, 360 degree contracts by record companies becoming scrutinised by the public for their blatant manipulation of authenticity (Karubian 2009; Stahl and Meier 2012), with many listeners losing trust in mainstream music and with artists turning to fan support sites such as Bandcamp & Pateron to support themselves.

Globalisation and the spread of musical culture

With the rise of internet file sharing, now more than ever before people could listen to music from across the globe, something that was previously unachievable through the distribution of physical media. Information reported in the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s Recording Industry World Sales for the year 2000 (IFPI 2001), showed that over eighty percent of music sales were from only North America, Europe and Japan alone. Whereas the Global Music Report for 2017 (IFPI 2017). featured an article on the rapid growth of the market in China, highlighted by a staggering 20.3% revenue growth since the previous year, primarily due to an increase in internet access through smartphones.  This increase in the sharing of music has also improved the musical genres and cultures people are able to access and experience. This has had an unprecedented effect on people’s individual musical tastes as well as altering their understanding of what constitutes music. No longer is musical popularity bound to its original geological culture base. Instead music genres can and find large audiences anywhere around the world. The prime example of this has been the spread of Korean Pop, which, according to Ingyu Oh (2013), hails its strength from, “the concept of cultural hybridity” (p.389). Describing Korea’s method of success as “a new technique of locating already common and popular musical content in Europe or elsewhere, modifying it … and then redistributing it to the global music market” (p.405). Clearly this merging of genres has become more accepted and applied by people as online music globalization continues, fostering new genres and increasing scope of people’s musical views.

The resurgence of the vinyl media

One surprise to appear during this time of digital progression was the resurgence of the vinyl record. This medium, which by the year 2000 (IFPI 2001) only accounted for 0.4% of sales, suddenly gained an unforeseen boost contributing 3.7% of the album sales though our 2017 (IFPI 2017). A number of reasons for this are discussed by Bartmanski and Woodward (2015). One idea proposes that people collect records due to their history. For some people the collection of seminal albums by such artists such as the Beatles, which people believe are only meant to be listened to in their original release format. For many, vinyl collecting has become a major hobby, and, due to vinyl’s history and in some cases rarity, people are willing to pay large amounts of money to own records, with the Beatles first copy of the White Album being sold at auction for $719,000 (Lynch 2015). Ironically this an overwhelming price when people are so against the comparatively low cost of owning other musical media. This feeling of rarity and individuality, in contrast to the proliferation and individuality of digital media, is also supported by Bartmanski and Woodward (2015) who have described digital formats as “endlessly reproducible and deletable” (pg.22).  This supports the view that as we have moved further into the digital domain of proliferation and globalisation, people have found it harder to locate the authenticity and creativity that they feel is a key feature in the attraction of music.


I feel it would be foolish to deny that the media formats we use to consume music have had a dramatic effect on our relationship with music throughout the 21st century. The process of digitalisation, and the rapid acceleration of digital technologies, have pushed us irreversibly into a world which increasingly relies on digital media and data. Although some remnants of past musical media have shown a resurgence, they only do so with a romantic and historical message, reminding us of some of the lost aspects which some interpret as key components of music. Otherwise past media have been made irrelevant by their sheer impracticality, when compared to the constant demand and access to music of our culture. This demand and expectation, begun during those first days of file sharing sites, and which has been enforced by the access-based business model of streaming sites, has quintessentially changed our priorities. We labour under the illusion that music is necessary to our daily lives and that we should have the right to access all music, which makes us increasingly reliant on access-based music consumption for our music demands. Although the effects of this can only just start to be observed, I feel it will become an increasingly important conversation as we continue onwards through the 21st century.


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