As physical sales overtake digital downloads, we ask if there is a future for the less-loved format.
Digital downloads transformed music forever. No longer would fans have to leave their houses to listen to the latest songs from their favourite artists. Instead, they could have all the music they wanted downloaded directly to their hard drives.
When digital downloads were new, they were hugely exciting. Fans of niche genres now had access to music their local HMV would never have in stock. Listeners could now download individual album tracks instead of having to buy entire CDs.
The iTunes revolution may have had a huge impact at the time, but now digital downloading’s days could be numbered. For the first time since 2011, physical sales of CDs and vinyl records outstripped digital downloads in the USA. More people chose to pick up formats dating from the 1980s and 1940s respectively, than to download their music digitally. As we all know, this is down to music streaming—that ever-disruptive force. But there are also other factors. So with this being the case, is there a future for digital downloads at all?
Streaming beats downloading for convenience
When it was new, the key factor behind streaming’s popularity was its convenience. The then-nascent iPod promised to fit 1,000 songs in the palm of a users’ hand, and this was hugely novel at the time. Before MP3s and MP3 players, the only way to carry music around with you was in a personal cassette or CD player, and these could only fit one album’s worth of music in them at once.
Sitting at home clicking ‘buy’ on an iTunes track had a certain novelty to it. That song was yours now to carry around. Yours to listen to whenever you wanted to. If you could figure out how, it was even yours to burn onto a CD.
Of course, there was a dark side to downloading. Many people did it illegally. Sites like Napster caused a different kind of musical revolution—one that left musicians out of pocket, and changed the expectations of listeners around the world. Even though Napster was shut down, a new mindset emerged. If every song is out there, on the internet, ready for me to download at the touch of a button, why can’t I just have all of them now? It’s not like taking a physical CD. Who is really losing out?
In the industry, we know that many people were losing out. But the change had taken place, and the industry had to adjust to it. Enter streaming. The likes of Spotify gave listeners a completely legal way to access almost every song ever recorded for free (with ads) or for a very small fee. With a Spotify subscription, downloading from iTunes was rendered pointless. If you wanted to get a song on your phone—which had replaced redundant MP3 players—you could stream it, and one million other songs, for the same price as downloading just one album each month. The math didn’t add up. The benefits of downloading are now relatively slim. The only real plus is the fact that you own that music. No one can take it away a la Prince, Taylor Swift or Jay-Z removing their catalogues from Spotify. But downloading an album is no longer the favoured way to own it.
Vinyl became the ‘ownership’ format of choice
Dedicated music fans might pay for streaming subscriptions, but for them there’s still nothing like building a music collection. Unfortunately for digital downloads, downloading an album isn’t a particularly fulfilling way to take ownership of it.
Despite various attempts to jazz the format up—iTunes ‘Digital LPs’ come to mind—having a downloaded copy of an album is barely better than saving it to your streaming library. Buying it as a record, on the other hand, is exciting. Physically large, with high quality artwork—more artwork than a tiny digital thumbnail—and debatably better sound quality, vinyl records have surged in popularity ever since the dawn of streaming.
Maybe people missed the pre-Napster era, when your music was your music. Either way, digital downloads have fallen out of favour even with those who prize building a music collection.
Digital downloads have changed, not vanished
There will still be those who prefer digital downloading. Especially electronic music fans and DJs who buy high quality tracks from Beatport, or who need to download the stems of songs to turn them into remixes. But even casual listeners are actually downloading more music than the new figures suggest.
While iTunes-style digital downloads might be endangered, users of Apple Music, Spotify and other streaming platforms download saved music for offline listening all the time. That’s still a digital download, it’s just not the digital downloading we’re used to. This kind of digital downloading is more like borrowing than owning. But it doesn’t mean we should ignore it.
Traditional digital downloads may be on the way out, but DJs will still download high quality tracks, and casual fans will still save music to listen offline. Like all technological advancements, downloads have evolved over time. Who knows, they might just make a comeback in the future.