Twisted City by Chris Singleton - album sleeve

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The death of the MP3

As many of you know, I've been quite an advocate of independent artists giving music away for free. Not because I don't value music, but because I don't think that indie musicians - and many established ones - have much of a choice around this. Digital technology and the internet has created an unlimited supply of recorded music, which means the real cost of it is rapidly approaching zero.

I've tried to take advantage of this as much as I can, by giving away MP3s in exchange for data. The idea being that you get my album free, but I can contact you about other stuff that you might want to pay for, like gigs or t-shirts (I've yet to do the latter: I find the idea of somebody wearing an item of clothing with my face on it a bit perturbing). It's working fairly well, with thousands of people now owning a digital copy of Twisted City, and more and more strangers - yes, strangers! - attending my gigs.

But I'm increasingly aware that this 'business model' is slowly - or perhaps not so slowly - becoming of limited use. This is because like the wax disc, vinyl LP, 8-track cartridge, cassette, minidisc and CD that went before it, the (downloaded) MP3 is going to die out...and soon.

Why is the MP3 in its death throes? Because a combination of streaming and increasingly sophisticated mobile devices connected to the net are starting to give people instant access to vast, online music libraries. Soon, there simply won't be a need for people to store MP3s or carry them around on iPods (believe me, these currently hip devices are going to look very quaint in the not-too-distant future). The humble MP3 represents the last incarnation of paid-for recorded music; and soon it will be a relic of the past.

What this means, of course, is that the current practice of artists giving away downloads in exchange for email addresses is also going to come to an end, and fairly soon. Which is a shame in many ways, as this has created an opportunity for musicians to generate large fanbases, and a cheap means to sell stuff direct to listeners, without record company involvement. If the MP3 is no more, with it dies the incentive for people to submit data for music; they'll just turn to Spotify to listen to stuff instead.

And where will this leave the record companies? It's an interesting question. Obviously if there is no recorded music left to buy, then they can hardly sell it. What they can sell though is concert tickets, because there is still a profit to be made from live performance - you can't make a digital copy of that. The result: record companies are going to have to become concert promoters if they want to survive.

So I think in about 5 years time the de facto model for the industry will be this:

1. Record company signs artist.

2. Record company advertises artist on TV, radio etc., encouraging people to stream their music on Spotify (or whatever the streaming service du jour is in 2014).
3. Fans do what they're told and stream Lady Gaga's new single (or whatever the electro-pop-cum-performance-artist sensation du jour is in 2014).
4. Record company puts on shows for the artist and sells tickets for them, taking a huge cut of sales.
5. If artist doesn't shift enough gig tickets, he or she is dropped, which means, yes, you got it...the artist is beholden to the record company again!

So if I were running a record company right now - and technically with my small label, Brownpaper Records, I suppose I am - I'd be turning it into a promotions company and looking for ways to get as much of the ticket sales pie as possible. And a cut of of everything else that's going too - publishing, sync rights, merchandise and so on. The buzz term for that is the '360 degree' model. I call it the piece-of-everything-you-ever-make-or-I'll-sue-your-ass model.

And if I were an artist, I'd start giving away dem MP3s like mad while you've still got people walking round with iPods. Yes, here it comes, the plug for the album: download it here. Free.

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Reader Comments (2)

I like owning something physical like a CD or LP. I even like MP3's or Apple's evil AAC. You still get something for the money you buy.

Apple's iTunes Store and I think's digital downloads are still very popular and people are obviously buying recorded music in MP3 or AAC format (along with other digital content these places sell).

What I've always liked about MP3 is the fact that the format (while not the best sonically) was never copy protected which gives end users free reign to migrate music form one device to another (hopefully only the ones they own) with smashing into the DRM wall. Of course it wasn't/isnt' very good for artists and labels because a lot of people freely gave or traded these away on P to P sites (which I don't use; I hate having my own computer set up as a public site).

I dunno. If the future of recorded music is only streaming, when that day comes I will probably stop buying any new music. I am sure those sites that currently stream for free will go to a pay type subscription service if there is no music for anyone to buy and store on local devices.

So complicated.

I like good old 45s and LPs better as I come from that earlier era.

November 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermel

I disagree. Although not on the MP3 part but concerning downloading versus streaming. Downloading has a pretty good reason to not die and that is the fact that a copy gives it value. It is that process of archiving that happens when you copy something that makes it more permanent, more accessible and thus more valuable, culturally. When you talk about streaming it sounds like you want to keep controls to what people hear and what they might have chance hearing in the future. The problem with that is you really don't want your music to stay, you want it to fade away.

February 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJL

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