Itunes fig­ures show it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got cheap swing

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - OPINION -

Fifty per cent of head­lines this week main­tained iTunes is re­spon­si­ble for sav­ing the mu­sic world. The other 50 per cent made iTunes re­spon­si­ble for de­stroy­ing the mu­sic world.

It’s a bit of a mu­si­cal Mobius Strip all right. Yes, mu­sic sales glob­ally have plum­meted since the in­tro­duc­tion of iTunes 10 years ago this week. But since the advent of iTunes, we are now buy­ing more mu­sic than ever. What gives?

The an­swer: we’re buy­ing way more in­di­vid­ual tracks and way fewer full al­bums. We’ve come full cir­cle – the pop­u­lar mu­sic in­dus­try as we know it to­day was brought into be­ing by sales of the 45rpm. It wasn’t un­til the long-haired, con­cept-al­bum types emerged in the late 1960s/early 1970s that the sin­gle be­gan to viewed as some­thing ca­sual for the teeny­bop­per to spend their pocket money, on as op­posed to the “se­ri­ous” fan com­mit­ting to a full al­bum.

There was lit­tle money to be made from sin­gles. Some were even loss-lead­ers for the ac­com­pa­ny­ing al­bum, but there was a very healthy profit in al­bum sales. When the “se­ri­ous” acts ar­rived in the mid-1960s, many of them wouldn’t lower them­selves to re­lease some­thing as cul­tur­ally vul­gar as a sin­gle.

The sin­gle wasn’t killed off dur­ing the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s for artis­tic rea­sons; it just didn’t make any fi­nan­cial sense. Ru­mours, The Dark Side of the Moon, Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia, Tubu­lar Bells and Thriller sig­nify the al­bum’s hight­ide mark, and they made rev­enues the likes of which the in­dus­try will never see again. The ar­rival of the shiny new CD for­mat cop­per­fas­tened the al­bum’s supremacy.

In the 1990s we were pay­ing – as un­be­liev­able as it sounds – roughly the equiv­a­lent of ¤30 for an al­bum. If Nap­ster/iTunes hadn’t hap­pened, how much would we be pay­ing now? It was this very greed that did for the mu­sic in­dus­try. While the la­bels were flog­ging old cat­a­logues at ridicu­lous prices on the new CD for­mat (and ev­ery­one felt they had to re­place their old record col­lec­tion), they were warned by com­puter ex­perts that by digi­tis­ing mu­sic they were vul­ner­a­ble to file-shar­ing if the per­sonal com­puter ever caught on. Home tap­ing didn’t kill mu­sic (it didn’t even bloody its nose), but the sim­ple dis­sem­i­na­tion of dig­i­tal mu­si­cal files for free on the net al­most has.

Fans flocked to Nap­ster in 1999 be­cause they didn’t want to pay more than ¤30 to hear an al­bum that only had two or three good tracks on it. iTunes legally for­malised af­fairs by “un­lock­ing” the al­bum. Once the con­sumer was given the choice, they chose to buy just the one or two good tracks and skip the “filler”. De­prived of the huge profit mar­gin from al­bum sales, rev­enues dipped.

The old Stiff Records T-shirt that pro­claimed “Money Talks, Peo­ple Mum­ble” is per­ti­nent this week. The mum­bling about iTunes sav­ing/ de­stroy­ing mu­sic is mean­ing­less. Give us good, cheap mu­sic and we’ll happily buy it. iTunes – more than 25 bil­lion down­loads served.

Item: This week, Frank Turner (a neo-folk artist, m’lud) cut the price of his new al­bum, Tape Deck Heart, from £7.99 to £4.99 on the Ama­zon site. It wasn’t rac­ing up the charts at £7.99, but it is at £4.99.

You can throw all the “in­dus­try anal­y­sis” at iTunes and its past, present and fu­ture. Th­ese days, though, more than ever, it don’t mean a thing un­less it’s got that cheap swing. bboyd@irish­

Frank Turner: cut-price Heart

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