The End of Digital Downloads?

That’ll teach me for writing this too quickly. I based this on a Digital Music News report which was published Wednesday evening UK time. A few hours later, and ReCode was reporting that Apple is planning no such thing. Of course plans change all the time, and record labels can get angry. So who knows what the truth of it was. But I think the piece stands either way.

On Sunday, after a week or so teasing the internet by turning their website to pure white and closing various accounts, Radiohead released their new album, A Moon Shaped Pool. I was able to head off to their website and buy a download instantly.

I’d given Radiohead some money – cutting out middlemen retailers as it happens – and they’d given me some files that, as long as I’m careful, will be playable for years to come.

This is essentially the same kind of transaction I’ve been conducting when I buy music, since I was a child.

But we are in the early 21st century, and it’s all about streaming. So if I hadn’t chosen to spend £9, how else could I have listened? Well, there’s Apple Music or Tidal. The new album is available to stream on both platforms.

Notably though, it’s not on Spotify.

No skin off my nose, as I don’t pay for a premium Spotify subscription, and only every rarely listen to the free service.

But if I was a different – probably younger – listener, I might be a bit miffed. Because if I have a Spotify subscription, I’m unlikely to have either an Apple Music or Tidal subscription as well. Why would you pay twice for access to the same music?

And therein lies my problem with streaming services – they don’t always deliver. Indeed, Radiohead has reportedly been removing some of their other music from Spotify as rights return from their old label to the band itself.

So in that context it was interesting to read a report that suggests that Apple will phase out digital download sales from iTunes within the next two years. The US and UK are likely to be first!

[Update: Apple has quickly denied that it is planning to stop selling downloads according to ReCode.]

The thinking is this:

  • Download sales peaked a couple of years ago and are now falling.
  • In their place is rapdily growing subscription revenue, so why maintain a dual economy?

The article also mentions some Apple specific issues around matching music incorrectly, and “orphan tracks.” Those are a bit of a red herring though since they’re software issues that Apple could quite easily solve if it really wanted to.

iTunes Song Downloads

If download sales are in decline, then why should Apple bother continuing to support them?

But look at this larger picture chart of music industry revenues:

Infographic: Rise of Digital Music Stops the Industry's Decline | Statista

While digital overtakes physical, it doesn’t show a healthy overall picture, and that’s because streaming revenues don’t make up for losses from physical and downloads. Growth is actually coming from other revenue areas.

Special offers aside, the cost to a consumer of a streaming subscription is $120/£120 pa. Yet the average amount spent by British consumers on music currently is less than £40 a year.

By removing the option to buy, Apple is banking on a good number of current downloaders stepping up to become subscribers, yet for the “average” person, that involves a 200% increase in their music spending!

Well, good luck with that.

But my main issue is the one that I started with. Music rental removes my control over my music.

  • If EMI goes out of business tomorrow, my EMI CDs are still safe.
  • If Radiohead decides it doesn’t want to be on Spotify, my Radiohead CDs and downloads remain available to me.
  • If Spotify goes bust, I still have access to my music library.
  • If Apple Music puts its subscription rates up tomorrow, and I can’t afford the new price, I can still listen to all the music I own today.

It’ll be interesting to see how the music industry reacts to this story.

2 Comments

  1. When my iPod Classic gave up the ghost a few months back after years of faithful service I faced the “well, now what?” question. I’ve always listened to music on my commute, at work, walking around the shops, and while doing a spot of gardening. My phone certainly doesn’t have enough storage for all my music, and having to pick and choose every morning was never going to happen.

    I’d ignored streaming services for ages, why would I bother if I could just listen to my own music I’ve bought over the years? But faced with not having access to my music while mobile meant I sort of came around. Sort of.

    I gave Spotify a whirl a few months back. And it’s a mixed bag to be honest. I must admit I got caught up in the excitement of having a plethora of albums at my fingertips that I’d never quite got around to buying. It was fun. And to some extent, it still is. _But_, the missing albums, missing tracks, missing artists (Prince), song titles (ahh, no the song title is _not_ “Being Boring 2011 Remastered Amazing Edition”) make it a bit of a frustrating experience.

    At any time an artist’s label can pull the plug. At any time Spotify can pull the plug. I’m completely at the mercy of others here. But until I own a phone with 200+GB storage, I’m not sure what the alternative is? Maybe a hybrid. When I’m office bound, carry my USB hard drive around and fire up iTunes like the good old days. Then when in Safeway, have a subset of what’s on Spotify?

    I dunno, still trying to figure it out.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for you comment. My iPod Classic is currently “resting.” It still works, but I’d had to start choosing which podcasts and music went on it rather than simply “everything.”

    Your experiences with Spotify are part of the reason why I can’t see myself going over to it. There’s also a philosophical objection in that I don’t think their model does fairly recompense artists – although the record companies are to blame here too.

    My current solution to your problem is a phone with a microSD card (so no iPhone I’m afraid), and Google Play Music. I can put 50,000 songs up there free – they raised it from 20,000 just as I was reaching that limit – and I can fill my memory card with offline music from within the Google Play Music app. So everything is there to stream, and a pretty large sub-group is available offline. I have a 128gb card in my phone which was actually quite cheap. There’s a 200gb card available, and somebody has just announced a very pricey 256gb card recently. So getting all your music on your phone is actually achievable. Plus Google seems better than Apple at not replacing your version of songs with their versions – e.g. getting the “clean” album version or whatever.

    I don’t bother with Google’s subscription thing, but it’s there too.

    My next Android phone will definitely also have a microSD slot, as it’s so useful not to have to worry about streaming even with plentiful WiFi/4G. Flights, underground and more remote locations spring to mind.

    Were it not for my phone, I think my other option would have been to look at something like the Fiios X5. £260 here in the UK and it has 2 x 128gb microSD card slots. So 256gb music, plus it’s a USB DAC for improved office listening via a laptop.

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