Are downloads the “horseless carriages” of digital?

Thursday February 23, 2012

Are downloads the "horseless carriages" of digital?

Sixties media theorist Marshall McLuhan said one of the problems with media revolutions is that human beings insist on looking at the new world as though it was the same as the old. "We look at the present through a
rear-view mirror," he said. "We march backwards into the future."

It was rear view mirror thinking that led to the first cars being described as "horseless carriages".

Marshall McLuhan - key insight: the medium is the message, ie new media are not just neutral carriers of a message. They change the nature of the message too - would feel right at home in the entertainment industry these days.

A decade into the "digital music revolution" and we're still at the horseless carriage stage. Too many people still view the new world as though it were just a logical extension of the old.

It's not. And the evidence is everywhere. 

It is arguably rear view mirror thinking which has seen the permanent download capture the imagination of consumers and technology companies and record companies alike. A digital download, a defined digital 'object' transferred from one party to another is in a sense no more than the digital equivalent of a plastic disc.

A native digital concept is far more likely to be a cloud service, a We7 or a Spotify. After all, a download gives none of the physical satisfaction of ownership of a disc. If you have constant access to what you want, why bother to 'own' it, especially when licence terms being what they are, you never really own it anyway?

But while rear-view thinking characterises our approach to the kinds of product or service digital makes possible, it is also shaping our expectation of the way digital will develop.

The history of the music business is the history of a linear progression from one format to another. CDs followed cassettes followed LPs followed 78s.

There was always overlap, but it was like a relay race with one format handing the baton to another.

We are comfortable with this concept and it colours most analyses of music's future.

But what if it's not like that?

What if a sizeable percentage of consumers have no intention of "transitioning" to downloads at all?

When the BPI last year commissioned some research into consumer behaviour and their format preferences, the label it attributed to the most important segment, mass market CD buyers was "Going Digital". The assumption was that just as their forebears did, today's CD consumers will fall into line, accept the passing of the baton to a newer format and switch their buying behaviour online.

But what if they don't? What if they're perfectly happy - if a little unexcited - by physical formats. The danger is that if they are no longer able to buy physical products, they may stop buying music entirely.

There is a growing body of opinion that it is this which poses the biggest challenge to the music industry - and that there may yet be time for the video and games businesses to avoid the same mistake.

Mark Mulligan, one of the most respected analysts of the future of the music business - and an unashamed standard bearer for digital music - is just the latest to identify it as a key issue in a recent blog post.

Because he is a digital music enthusiast, Mark cannot help himself being dismissive of these "digital refuseniks", but he is forced to admit "with all of the focus on digital strategy it is sometimes easy to forget that the CD is still the beating heart of music revenues and the most widespread music purchasing behaviour, even in the US, that most digital of western music markets".

The most recent figures from the BPI certainly bear this out with 80% of album sales in the UK still on CD in 2011.

ERA's physical retail members - routinely dismissed as Luddites by some - have consistently argued that the record industry's pursuit of digital formats has lurched too rapidly from denial 10 years ago to wide-eyed enthusiasm for all things digital for the past five years. The physical music market is being allowed to wither on the vine due to lack of innovation, they say.

What we need, they say, is something which bridges the gap between physical and digital - perhaps a cloud service allied to a physical product - which genuine helps people transition to the new world - and doesn't just leave them with a "horseless carriage". Could it be that the world is finally is finally coming round to their view?

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