Has The Digital Age Changed Our Relationship With Music?


Is our relationship with music changed because we no longer physically hold it? I look at how the lack of a physical product makes us value music differently, or worse, less. 

After my panels at the Music Summit, part of Web Summit 2015 in Dublin during November, I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about music lately. Before heading to Dublin, I had lunch with my old boss, the uber-gifted, former President and Chief Executive of MTV Europe, Brent Hansen.

Whether you were lucky enough to work with Brent or not, it’s a huge privilege to have the luxury to bandy about ideas with him. With the backdrop of the digitally energized East London skyline, we ate lunch in the fitting venue of Shoreditch House. The atmosphere was almost like our old offices – buzzy, comfortable and lots of creative exchanges whizzing around.  Brent Hansen is now on the Board of Governors at Southbank Centre and I wanted to pick his brain about classical music in the digital age, to prep for the panel I moderated.  What I got was the very thought provoking questions, ‘Are we as invested in music today? Or has it been somehow reduced to “ambiance”’?

How It All Changed

The music industry changed irreversibly in 1999 when Napster went live, followed closely by the launch of the iPod in 2001, and the iTunes store in 2003. Unshackled from single format listening, music could now be played, copied, shared, and curated anywhere.  The digital revolution freed music from the confines of a CD rack and tapedeck.

Previously, though, we ‘owned’ our music collections and music was a financial investment. In the 1970s a record cost around $3.50/£1.40, and in the early 90s a CD cost $15/£8 (cassettes were $11 in 1990).  Adjusted for inflation, these prices are around $25-30/£16-20 in 2015.  Much more than the $9.99 or $12.99/£8 – £10 we spend on a digital album today.  We could listen to the radio and watch videos on MTV, but our prized collections lived at home with us.  Organized in a way unique to us, featured in a place of pride, we could listen to any song whenever we wanted.

We saved our money and went to the music store – browsing aisles of records or CDs, talking to the shop manager, looking for the rare ones, the popular ones and buying what we could afford. Half of the time we just liked flicking our fingers through the cases or sleeves, loving the hunt as much as the discovery. We surreptitiously glanced around us to see who was buying what. And when we listened at home, our fingers connected with the music too. We plucked CDs out of their cases, careful not to smudge them. We lowered the needle onto records to the satisfying scratch of the start of the album, then walking across the room to flip them expertly to the B-Side. We had to listen to ‘filler’ tracks and wait for our favourites. We read the album notes and lyrics, over and over again. And we had our friends over specifically to listen to our music collection too. We shared our music like a secret talent, something we were proud and protective of.

Lower Cost, Lower Value?

Today? We still own music, but it costs much less than before and we tend to buy tracks with a swipe on our smartphones or click of our mouse, instantaneously, wherever we are. Buying whole albums is almost an afterthought, something done when we like enough songs that it saves us money.

We use streaming music services like Spotify and pay monthly subscriptions where the cost is considerably less at $9.99/£9.99 per month for hundreds of thousands of tracks than our previous owned collections. We link our social accounts to our streaming services and our music collections are automatically – and somewhat inconsequentially – shared. We no longer have to decide on a limited selection of CDs to bring on road trips or commutes. We have days and weeks of music to listen to on a device that fits in our hand. Or simply open an app and have years and decades of music in our hands that streams for free.

I remember back in 2004 when I was speaking at Midem, the whole music industry said ‘people will ALWAYS want to own music’, streaming will never work for music, we already have radio. Well not exactly. (Side note: If you say, “[Insert industry here] will ALWAYS do [insert claim here],” you’re guaranteed to be proven wrong eventually.) Streaming services are growing rapidly in popularity and with a few exceptions – classical music in particular where the quality is still an issue – it appears that this is the future for recorded music.

Change is Gonna Come”

Our recommendations often come from algorithms now and not the music shop manager or our friends. We share online with a tap on our devices to our ‘friends or contacts list’, often doing it to enhance our status on a social media profile, but not as often while we are in the same room listening together. We share “curated” playlists instead of mixtapes or CDs. We talk about the size of our collection in “gigs” instead of how much space it takes up in our homes. We organize by “Artist,” “Date Added,” “Most Played” instead of creating our own organizational systems.

Given that today, music is less expensive, more accessible and takes very little planning or physical effort – are we as invested emotionally with music as in the past? Has the liberation of music from shelves in our home also meant we can no longer hold it as closely either? Has this change in recorded music affected our relationship with live music performance too?

It seems that the answers to these questions are as far ranging as the digital options themselves. Some people feel that all content – music, film, TV, books – is commoditized in today’s digital world. We consume more, so it has less value, or certainly less value on an individual basis (whether a song, TV show or film) since we don’t savour it like we once did. We have shorter attention spans and only scratch the surface of most things now. We don’t take the time to dive deeper into the subject “Media” itself because we moved onto the next thing. Since we didn’t invest much money in it, psychologically we don’t feel the same obligations to get a certain level of return on ‘investment’. Other people feel that recorded music has indeed become more ‘ambient’, but the live experience is more important than ever before. We experience the energy and emotion of the unique performance, along with the others in attendance with us. And certainly, live music gigs are breaking records for attendance around the world, in particular the growth of festivals. People are going to more gigs and spending more money on them.

Where To From Here?

I believe music continues to play a significant role in our lives, triggering emotional engagement in each of us, but we are shifting in how – and where – we experience this engagement. In many ways, we are going back to the days before recorded music, where Mozart and Lizst played live to intimate audiences (at one point Lizst did over 300 ‘gigs’ a year), where playing live music in our homes with our families (not sitting around watching TV or each person playing on their iPads in isolation) and in our local communities was a key part of the social fabric of life and where so many important traditions began. Festivals have become a natural extension of those communities and there are options for everyone.

As I continue to explore these themes, I would love to hear your thoughts.

ft img: DncnH/Flickr
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1 Response to Has The Digital Age Changed Our Relationship With Music?

  1. Mohan Magic says:

    Brilliant blog you have here. I found it interesting how much enjoyment you describe about going to music stores and the experience of looking through the selection. As a 27 year old, I only had the experience of purchasing physical CD’s for a few years and my relationship with owning music has been much more digital based. As far as physically owning music is concerned, I mostly enjoyed it for the aesthetic appeal of the artwork and being able to see lyrics but to be honest I much prefer the digital aspect and now streaming model being bused today. I do however, think that artists are still being taken advantaged which I have done a blog about but I’m very optimistic that it will be resolved eventually.

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