Written by Music

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.