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by Adam Butler


The fundamental means by which audiences consume music in the 21st Century has changed, leaving the music industry fighting a battle between the devaluation of a musical product, copyright infringements and the implications of the shift from a physical product to an artifact-less service. In an analysis of this subject matter, this paper will examine some of the key industry changes to assess their effect on an audience. Firstly, considering the era before new media emerged thus giving an understanding of how new media have changed audience perspectives. Secondly, Napster’s effect on social and moral attitudes towards music as a digital commodity. Thirdly, analysing music as a service and the YouTube consumer to demonstrate the further devaluation of a musical product in the digital realm, followed by an analysis of the new interactive audience and the ways in which artists have established a new level of intimacy with their fans. Finally concluding with an overview of the extent to which digital media designed for music consumption has transformed the consumer’s relationship with music in the 21st century.


In 1877, Thomas Edison created the Phonograph, (The Library of Congress, n.d.) music and technology were bound together. Each technological advancement over the years has altered the pathway that the music industry is progressing down thus leading us to the digital media age of music we see today. Over the years, consumption of music by its audience has been manifested through many different media. It is through these different media that audiences interact with the artist, thereby playing a large role in artist perception, accessibility, monetization of a product and interactivity between art, artist and audience. The first publicly accessible medium was that of the record, originally made from shellac, whose large size and brittle nature were restrictive in playback quality and portability. Nonetheless the record platform was the dominant in platform in global music sales until 1984 (Tschmuck 2010).  By the late 1970s Philips had developed the compact cassette, a consumption medium that offered high fidelity audio in a much smaller package than that offered by the vinyl record players that preceded it (Albright 2015). In 1979 Sony released the Walkman into the market (Haire 2009). Compact cassettes grew in popularity until in 1984 their sales surpassed those of vinyl (Tschmuck 2010). For the first time, the cassette tape in combination with the Walkman offered an entirely new consumption experience. The portability of the Walkman introduced a new factor in interactivity, enabling the listener to interject somewhat of a soundtrack to their daily activities. This intuitive redesign of audio consumption paved the way for Apple’s later advancement in the industry, the iPod.


As digital technology advanced, and the costs of purchasing the devices dropped, the industry-leading consumption medium moved from that of the compact cassette to that of the Compact Disc (CD). The CD offered audio in higher definition than that seen in the conventional compact cassette with the added ability not only to play tracks repeatedly without causing damage to the medium but also to skip to individual tracks instantly. The significance of this application could be seen to have a direct effect on the cultural understanding of music in the form of an album. The ability to order the tracks in any way the consumer sees fit detracts from that the arranger intended.  If the musical content in an album was arranged to represent a journey that the arranger envisioned as a crucial part of their art, then it must be asked, has the consumer the ability to restructure content subsequently detracted from its impact? It could be further argued that this desensitisation of the consumer is directly related to music becoming a service, as opposed to its historic position in society as a product.


In 1999, Napster launched its peer-to-peer (P2P) network. The concept of a P2P network was nothing new, as institutions such as the Internet Research Community had been discussing them from as early as 1969 (Crocker 1969). P2P networks function by transmitting segments of files (in the case of Napster, mp3 audio files) from multiple computers to be downloaded by those connected to the network for free. This process means it is difficult to track where the files are transferred from as they no longer must pass through a main server as seen in the traditional client-server-networking approach. By transferring these files without the consent of the copyright holder, or the intellectual property rights holder, Napster became controversial in the music industry. Although P2P networks are in themselves not illegal, the association with Napster instilled a public image with illegal connotations.


The P2P networks as demonstrated by Napster redefined the way that the music industry worked on a fundamental level. Previously supply and demand was moderated by the production of physical artefacts, such as the record, cassette and eventually the CD, whereby scarcity of a product increased is socially perceived value. However with the P2P infrastructure greater demand in turn produces a greater supply. This principle is entirely enabled due to the artifact-less nature of the transferable file, as binary information can be multiplied indefinitely with no degradation to the information. As P2P networks grew in popularity throughout the next decade their influence in the music industry also grew. This resulted in a negative impact on the economic profitability of the industry and further saturated the market due to its, greater demand/greater supply principal. Saturation of audio content in the market decimated the traditional publication approach adopted by the major record labels, resulting in uncertainty as how to overcome the devaluation of a musical product.


Hughes and Lang (2003) in their paper ‘If I Had a Song’ further analyse the implications of P2P networks on a sociocultural level. They suggest that the introduction of these networks is fundamentally redesigning ‘cultural values: in behavioural changes, attitudinal changes, and even fundamental shifts in ethical judgment’ (Hughes and Lang 2003). This is further evidenced by the fact that the majority of consumers proclaim that they would never steal, yet have no ethical quandary when it comes to illegally obtaining a copyrighted file, despite this being theft of intellectual property. This change in cultural ethics demonstrates the negative attributes adopted by the participants when the perceived value of a musical commodity is reduced and the threat of legal action is improbable.


According to the paper ‘Optimism in music piracy’ by Nandedkar and Midha, ‘as perceived risk increases, individuals’ attitude of acceptance of piracy should decrease’ (2009), however, this seems not to be the case, thus creating somewhat of a ‘paradox’ (Nandedkar and Midha 2009). It then seems that in order to overcome this issue that potentially damages the music industry, a solution must come from something other than threat of prosecution. (Dörr, Wagner and Hess 2013).


Wikstr­öm (2009), in contrast, offers an antithetical opinion to this debate stating not all applications of P2P networks have had a negative impact on the music industry. By enabling the consumer to access a larger volume of content at a diminished price, the potential spectrum of audience appreciation is broadened which in turn is ‘beneficial to the entire music industry’ (Wikstr­öm 2009, p. 150). Furthermore, the decline in revenues as seen since 1999 could be in relation to ‘the fact that the market for re-issues of older catalogue material may now be saturated’ (Hughes and Lang  2003) as consumers swap out their old formats for the new.


As the P2P networks disassembled the traditional platform to which music is published and therefore made profitable, the music industry attempted to fight back. Although many lawsuits where brought against Napster the battle was lost because P2P networks had reached the public domain, thus the damage was irreversible. Organisations such as the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) set up to combat the illegal attainment of the musical product ‘completely collapsed, as its participants realised that they were unable to solve the problem and simply gave up’ (Hughes and Lang 2003). Instead, the music industry was forced to redefine the concept of a musical product. As the markets grow increasingly saturated the ability to find individual musical products grow in difficulty, the simple and perhaps intuitive concept was to charge for access to a database of information, in turn, marketing Music as a Service (MaaS) as opposed to a product. This is demonstrated in platforms such as Spotify, Deezer and Simfy.


Spotify, based in Sweden and now accessible in over 60 other countries worldwide such as the USA, Germany, France, Tokyo, Mexico and many more (Spotify 2017), is, as of 2015 the number one MaaS provider in the mobile market (Mobile Music Streaming: Driving the Next Digital Revolution 2015). Most MaaS providers use the ‘Freemium’ principle as their business model. This method is commonly used in the online market and provides the consumer with a free ‘lite’ version of the product in order to entice the consumer into purchasing the unrestricted version (Anderson 2009). For this principle to work, Spotify must convert one in every twenty of its freemium users into premium users thus providing enough economic stability to maintain quality and growth (Anderson 2009).  As such, research by Oestreicher-Singer and Zalmanson, (2009) denoted that key aspects in converting freemium users to premium is directly related to increased sonic qualities, flexible contract duration, and integrated community networking (the ability to link social networks such as Facebook to share musical playlists etc.) (Oestreicher-Singer and Zalmanson 2009).


Each of the aforementioned music service providers removes the traditional notion of music being an artefact, no longer is the sole purpose of a music distributor based integrally on the musical content that it supplies. In order for the providers to remain integral in the industry, their specific platforms rely on the basis of context over content. This is to say that the user interface and it algorithmic playlist selection services are the leading factors in audience engagement. The ease of access and navigation through the vast array of musical information now proves paramount in the development of music streaming software.  Further to this, the MaaS providers are progressing evermore into the realm of media companies. As the MaaS providers as of yet do not produce content, the consumption of the musical product is now becoming indistinguishable from the distribution (Dörr, Wagner and Hess 2013). This is to say that the fundamentals to which music in the digital realm operates are now becoming ever more disposable.


In an unusual turn, YouTube, a video based distribution hub, has also integrated itself into the music market, offering a distribution channel with multimedia capabilities. Audiences around the world have flocked to its site, making it the second most popular website after Google worldwide in 2017 (Alexa 2017). Such a vast audience gives YouTube a strong position in the distribution of audio content to it users, although the audio content is not its sole function it has become one of its greatest attributes. As seen before in the marketing model of Spotify, YouTube also offers a freemium service in conjunction to its YouTube Red subscription service.


Subscription funding in the context of YouTube Red does not only go towards the cost of removing the ads for the premium users but also, the funding is to be reinvested in a selection of the top rating producers (The Verge 2015). By reinvesting in the core producers of content, YouTube bridges the producer/distributor line, therefore gaining greater control over its outgoing content. This could, in turn, produce both negative and positive results. Firstly, the negative, as audiences are attracted to different channels for a multitude of reasons, the involvement of a corporate giant (in this case Google) could rebrand the influenced channel removing its distinctive features so that it falls more in line with the direction of the conglomerate. As these channels were built from the individual’s desire to represent their artistic interpretations on a multitude of subjects, this integration could spell the demise of their freedom. However, in opposition to this, the recourses that could be available to these channels could, in fact, re-amplify their success if they are introduced in a manner to which the original creators have control over the outcome.


In 2015 YouTube increased its market placement in the online audio streaming sector to the leading streaming service in the UK and US (Ingham 2015) and as such music streaming has become a dominant factor in the consumption of audio.


One of the main driving forces of the MaaS emergence in context to both Spotify and YouTube is the audience interactivity platforms that most, if not all, services offer. The social media platforms such as Facebook enable audiences to interact with large digital community networks (Hughes and Lang 2003). Through these communities the exchange and acquisition of information regarding musical trends, traits and developments further submerses the audience within musical spectrum. Furthermore, Oestreicher-Singer and Zalmanson (2009) observed a higher likelihood for audience engagement with premium services when they offered community capabilities. This presents a direct link between monetization of a musical commodity or service and the diversity that the consumption medium must offer. Thus, as previously noted, there is demand on the MaaS provider to develop context over content, for example, by allowing an audience to share playlists from their friends and celebrities amongst other actions such as linking a Facebook account to a Spotify account, giving a real-time report of what the consumer is listening too.


However, audience interactivity as seen in the previous models is not the only way. In 2008 Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails(NIN)) redefined how an artist can turn audience interactivity into a creative and lucrative marketing and distribution avenue. After being contracted to record labels for 18 years, when they were released Reznor decided to use the band’s website as their main distribution centre, enabling them to have ‘a direct relationship with the audience (NME 2007). NIN released their 36 track instrumental album named Ghosts I-IV in a multi-format, multi-package bundle with two interactive additional features.


The first of these was the multi-format, multi-package bundle. By presenting the audience with a free taster of the album, Reznor enticed the prospective audience in. Then with the use of four levels of engagement the user could decide to what level they wanted to indulge. They were priced as: Digital Download – $5, 2 CD Digipak – $10, Deluxe Edition – $75 and finally the Ultra-Deluxe Edition – $300 (NinWiki 2017). The introducing of free content in this way offered an immediate challenge to the P2P networks. Furthermore, with the introduction of gradient pricing system consumers could dictate the price they paid considering that the lowest priced package was fundamentally less than that of equal proportion on a distribution site such as iTunes wherein 2008 the standard price was £7.99 (Sweney 2008) whereas according to the digital download would equate to £4.63 ( 2017).


However, the important aspect of their release was that of its interactive services. As Reznor used the band’s website as the main distributor, he set up an interactive feedback section whereby fans of the of the music could remix the tracks and re-upload them back on the server (NinWiki 2017).  This allowed others to review and vote for their favourite tracks and created an online community. Reznor further added to the interactive services by creating a kind of film festival dedicated to the tracks on his album. The intention was to create a space (in this case YouTube) whereby fans could create music videos to tracks from the album. By the end of 2008 ‘fans had uploaded over 2000 videos to the Film Festival, and an unknown but large number of user-generated remixes had been posted to “”’ (Wikstr­öm 2009).


Such marketing techniques, combined with audience integration methods as seen previously are not something that all band/artists could integrate successfully. These methods require large and dedicated audiences that are willing to participate. Another case study of artists moving away from record labels and relying on their audience dedication to support them is that of Radiohead’s album In Rainbows (Wikstr­öm 2009). This album was leaked by the band on their own website giving the audience the option of paying anything they would like for it. It is estimated that the album was downloaded over a million times with an average revenue per download of $2.40, potentially more than they would have received at EMI (Music Week 2007).


Digital media designed for music consumption have, without a doubt, transformed the way in which audiences interact, consume and value music in the 21st century. No longer is music solely a physical artefact that is controlled by the record labels. As music enters the digital realm its socially perceived value has diminished due to the fact that digital information is culturally seen as a commodity that should be free. Napster and other P2P networks fundamentally instilled this notion, giving access to others intellectual property for free. This in turn sparked a revolution in how music was to be seen and consumed to this date, redefining music as a service as oppose to its historic stance as a product. Today the consumer is inundated with music and in this saturated market the key focus of many online distributors is that of navigation. MaaS providers such as Spotify rely heavily on their user interface to attract its users and to provide a source of revenue. Due to its devaluation, the access to music on such sites is predominantly free (based on the freemium marketing technique): users now pay for premium accounts for access to more developed social media interactivity and to remove adverts from their consumption experience.   Furthermore, multi-media platforms such as YouTube, again based on the freemium marketing ploy, have further instilled this consumption model. Following suit from other MaaS providers, they have implemented a premium service that not only removes advertisements but also helps fund the producers of content on their site. This reinforces the strength of their product.


However, due to the mass reach that the internet provides, established artists have also taken it upon them selves to distribute their own content as seen in the cases studies discussed. Artists such as Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead redefined audience interaction and the combated the notion of the devaluation of a musical commodity by releasing music for free with the option to pay. Despite the fact that the music was free, many decided to pay thus demonstrating that music still has a monitory value.


As more music is created and distributed through web-based platforms the probability is that the concept of music as a service will further become instilled for future generations. As digital music grows in popularity it is perhaps perceivable that this generation could see the end of a physical musical artefact. However, with the resurgence of vinyl over the past decade this seems unlikely. Instead, digital and analogue may have to coexist, or at least for now. As digital media designed for music consumption take over the way in which an audience interacts with music, our relationship with music in the 21st century moves from the music itself to the platform in which it resides upon, as no longer does one select their favourite album, instead consumers are selecting their favourite software.