Twisted City by Chris Singleton - album sleeve

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Entries in MP3s (2)


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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The charts they are a-changing

Traditionally, music charts have been all about music sales. You sell records, you get in the charts; you don't, and you spin yourself as an serious, tortured act with a cult following who wouldn't be seen dead on a hit parade. Frankly, I know which camp I'd rather be in.

The UK (and other) charts have undergone a number of changes over the past few years. As physical cd sales declined, the chart rules were modified so that MP3 sales on iTunes and other digital retailers were taken into account. This led to some interesting effects: popular album tracks started entering the single charts; and obscure songs that had not been released as physical singles started to make surprise appearances, due to positive word of mouth and "grassroots" followings of underground acts.

The charts may be about to undergo another profound change. This is because I think that conventional sales - upon which charts are built - are on the way out. It seems increasingly likely (thanks to services such as Spotify) that people soon won't buy MP3s or cds any more, but will stream whatever songs they like over the internet (either on a subscription basis or by agreeing to hear adverts between tracks).

If this happens, the focus of charts is inevitably going to switch away from sales to the number of plays of particular songs. To a certain extent, this is already happening. The music social network Last FM currently tracks what its users are playing (see for what's currently hot) and Spotify also shows you how popular tracks are as you play them.

In many ways, this emphasis on how many times songs are played is a more accurate reflection of the popularity of music than music sales. After all, a lot of people may buy a track - say, a novelty or charity single like Mr Blobby - only to rarely play it. Equally, a great album, released by an independent artist, may not sell many copies but get repeated plays by a dedicated, small following.

Interestingly, what all this raises is the possibility that some sort of 'song quality' indicator may emerge - something that goes beyond telling us how many people own a song, and lets us know how many people actually like a song. We could arrive at this indicator by dividing the number of plays of a track by the number of people playing it; for example, if 10 unique Spotify users play a song 100 times, you could give the song a popularity rating of 10 (100 divided by 10). But if the same 10 users played another song 1000 times, that track would have a popularity rating of 100 (1000 divided by 10).

Listening to music has traditionally been viewed as an intensely subjective experience, but what examples like the above point to is that maybe beauty does not entirely lie in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps certain songs have intrinsically good qualities that charts have not, hitherto, been able to highlight accurately. Online data could change all that, and start to highlight the fact that some songs have inherent and enduring appeal.

As with so many other things right now, the internet is allowing us to measure our behaviour in entirely new ways - and leading us to make remarkable conclusions about things. I wasn't really expecting the net to tell me how well-written a song is; but it's now looking like a distinct possibility. To conclude, the internet will become a rock critic.


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