In an interview on the BBC Today programme singer Kate Bush expresses her fears for the music industry:
… a lot of people in the industry are very depressed because record sales are very low, I think a lot of us fear the death of the album as an art form. And I love albums, I understand that people just want to listen to a track and put it on their iPod, and that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, but why can’t that exist hand in hand with an album, they’re such different experiences? I mean a selection of songs, not just a song or a track. It’s just a completely different experience. I suppose the worst case scenario is that people would actually get to a point where they can’t afford to make what they want to make creatively. The industry is collapsing.
Is she right? When technology advances, not everything gets better. Music used to be expensive to distribute, now it can be done for almost nothing. There is not really any scarcity, and without scarcity, goods cannot command a price. Scarcity has to be imposed artificially, via DRM (Digital Rights Management), or trust basis, or inspecting data traffic.
There is still some money in digital music sales, of course, and still some money in CDs and other media too. The physical package is under obvious threat though, and good things will be lost: the cover artwork (which never fully recovered from the decline of the 12” LP record), the thrill of breaking the shrink-wrap on your new acquisition, and more crudely, the income this generated for the industry (though in most cases not so much for the artist).
That is the negative view though. The positive is that music has never been more available than it is today, and the barriers to a musician wanting to be heard have never been lower. Digital also enables new kinds of art, maybe multimedia packages, or releases where the user can create their own mixes, or interactive products which combine music with online experiences and interaction. The Who’s new Quadrophenia deluxe box is disappointing in terms of content, but its Q:Cloud site, which is unlocked by possession of the CD, has an amazing collection of material that goes beyond what would ever be printed and packed into a box.