Why the digital revolution has not yet been won

Tuesday November 6, 2012

By Steve Redmond

A former record industry colleague (who shall remain nameless) asked me the other day in not entirely a jocular manner, "Are you still peddling the line that bricks and mortar retailers of music actually matter?" Wearily I pointed out that despite the cheerleading of so many on the record company side, physical product - even in 2012 - still accounts for 70% of the album market. Ignoring it is simply not an option.

His dismissiveness of the physical market could itself be dismissed as mere idiocy were it not for the fact that it represents a clear and powerful strand of thought running through music industry thinking these days. They have genuinely persuaded themselves that the battle is over, digital is all and physical is fit only for the dustbin, the charity shop or the obsessive.

Which made it all the more telling when I turned to an interview with 7digital CEO and ERA Deputy Chairman Ben Drury in the current edition of Music Week. Few can as justifiably claim to be a veteran of the digital music wars as Ben. By my reckoning he has been a leader in the game for 17 years and next year 7digital itself celebrates a decade in business. Yet Ben, with his customary under-stated but acute take on the market, was very clear on the very real challenge digital faces if it is to achieve its potential.

"In many ways digital music is worse than CD currently," he said. "Obviously there are a lot of positive points for digital music, but, if we could get the experience to be at parity with or even better than CD in the areas that it's weak, then we could really put some clear blue water between legitimate and pirate sites."

In other words, suggests Ben, digital has some amazing attributes in terms of portability, accessibility and convenience, but at this point it does not yet cover all the bases. Which is presumably one of the reasons why 70% of album sales, more than a decade after the first download stores opened, are still on CD.

The music industry currently has two major formats - each answering very different consumer needs. Until digital formats manage to offer some of the benefits of the physical, or some way is found to bundle digital services with the CD, this is likely to continue for some time to come.

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