How Can the Music Industry Bridge the Gap Between Physical and Digital Experiences?
Few things divide music lovers as much as the ethics of digital music. Within the digital camp, you have groups who deride streaming in favor of purchasing downloads, supporting ownership over access as the best model for listeners and musicians. Some eschew digital altogether: witness the growth in vinyl over the past decade:
Despite the convenience of digital, there are obvious advantages of physical media. Humans are, in the end, still tactile beings. Physically interacting with a product or a service affects us differently than a purely digital experience. Having a rack of albums to peruse, select, and play is an appealing experience for many people, and a feature of the physical world that neither digital distribution nor streaming has replicated.
We’re visual creatures, too. Whereas programs like iTunes and Spotify will display album art, it’s not the same experience as standing before a rack of albums. Similarly with books, despite all of the advantages of e-readers, they have not captured the experience of examining a wall of books. Digital is great, but, unsurprisingly, there are features of the physical world that still have a certain primacy for, well, physical beings:
Poking through physical artifacts, as I did with those Beatles records, is archival and curatorial; it forces you to examine each object slowly, perhaps sample it and come across a serendipitous discovery.
Scrolling through file names on a device, on the other hand, is what we do all day long, often mindlessly, in our quest to find whatever it is we’re already looking for as rapidly as possible. To see “The Beatles” in a list of hundreds of artists in an iTunes database is not nearly as arresting as holding the album cover for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
All signs point to the growing importance of digital — especially streaming in the music industry. It seems beyond doubt that music-streaming services at large are slowly but surely coming into their own. While there will be pockets of consumers who prefer to access their music in different ways, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which the momentum of an increasingly interconnected world of the consumer desire to have the world’s music at their fingertips, is reversed.
I am currently working on a short album, and I’ve opted for only digital distribution. And I will be fine with streaming and downloading. My previous musical project, Recession Sessions, had both digital and physical. While having a physical CD was nice, at this point my first and last interaction with it would be to rip it onto a computer.
In my last piece about streaming music, I cited the thought experiment of Kanye West deciding not to release a new album, instead performing it only on tour as a way to control distribution. While not quite that dramatic, the recent release of Beyonce’s album Lemonade is in a similar vein. Its digital distribution was initially limited to Tidal, a service founded by, among others, her husband Jay-Z and the aforementioned Kanye.
The album is a big hit for Tidal, and by limiting distribution they have been able to maintain a higher price point albeit at the expense of a wider listening audience. (In part because of this, Lemonade is not only breaking records for Tidal but also for digital piracy). Lemonade experimented with an hour-long HBO visual presentation that was well received, and strived to expand the musical experience into other realms.
Lemonade demonstrates that some in the music industry are still exploring ways to deliver creative value. And the battle for online streaming clearly continues. There is currently no Facebook, Amazon, or Google dominating the competition with his or her business model and offerings. And perhaps streaming services won’t result in the same level of industry consolidation.
What I expect to see is a bigger attempt to bridge the physical and digital world of music in a way that uses the advantages of each.
Notice the excitement over Pokémon Go, the mobile game that interacts with your location and what you see in front of you. It easily became one of the fastest downloaded apps in history. It caused the stock of Nintendo, the creators of the Pokémon world, first to skyrocket 50% within a couple weeks of release, and then to retract 17% in one day once the company clarified to investors that it does not, in fact, own or operate the mobile game (you can thank Niantic, Inc.).
Pokémon Go is an example of augmented reality, where digital beings and effects are superimposed over the real world via your mobile device. Users have been delighted with this interplay between real and digital. Developers are guaranteed to be scrambling to try to replicate its incredible success with other games.
Walk down the street, and notice how many people you pass are wearing headphones. Where is the Pokémon Go for music? What service will take advantage of the huge economies of digital distribution and the persistent appeal of physical interaction?