Just a few days ago, I was asked by a student at MU to answer some questions for a story he was writing in one of his classes. The topic is how digital distribution of music affects artists, music stores, and music itself. Another point of concern is what might happen to albums as an art form. I don't know what will ultimately happen with his story or if it will be available for the general public to read, and since the topic fascinates me and is quite pertinent to what I do, I've decided to basically re-print my reponses to him here in this blog.
First of all, my performance and recording career began right as the push for digital distribution was gearing up, so I've been involved in it from the start. In speaking with musicians whose careers began years before mine and have been at it longer, I know the general perception is that digital access to music has changed and is greatly changing the musical landscape for artists, labels, record stores, and consumers alike, but it seems there is a positive and a negative side to these changes.
First, for the positive side of digital distribution: it affords artists more ways to get their music to the public, plain and simple. For some artists who do not have distribution deals in music stores, they can still have their music listened to, and purchased by, an international audience through various digital distribution websites, or their own website. It also provides an excellent way for people to "review" your music if they haven't heard it on the radio or attended a live show. I do have song clips on my website and on CD Baby (great online music store) because the more informed people feel about their decision to purchase, the more likely they are to do so. So, in this way, many artists probably sell more music to people who would not buy their album on the basis of seeing the cover alone. I'd liken this phenomenon to the way that record stores, in the last two decades, brought in "listening stations" where you could review a CD you were interested in buying to make sure you wanted it. In general, I think this increases CD sales. I also have individual songs available for sale and download on several websites like Apple iTunes and others. I still sell more complete albums than I do individual downloads, but part of that may be due to the tremendous amount of information consumers have to sift through in order to find a single artist or song. The added income from digital downloads isn't something I'd turn my nose up at, however. It gets my music to more people and doesn't seem to be hurting my CD sales at all. In my experience, people still seem very interested in purchasing CDs at an actual music store, or purchasing it at a show, and often their last option is to order it online if they can't find it elsewhere, so right now I feel digital availability of music is an ADDENDUM to the other ways that music is available, rather than something that is ringing the death knoll for those other options. However...everything changes as technology grows and as we grow accustomed to new ways of doing things, so certainly the various ways in which digital distribution will affect music, not just as an industry, but as an art form, will continue to be seen in the years to come.
Because of my label and some of the websites I'm carried on, I've had the opportunity to be on these digital pay download sites, and also to be distributed 'online' in stores like Tower Records. This is beneficial to me because I'm not on a major label yet, so I don't have hundreds of thousands of CDs manufactured to physically stock in Tower Records stores all over the United States. But if someone can go online at Tower and find my CD, I'm still 'available' in every state without having to expend millions of dollars to make enough CDs to physically stock in each of these stores. Is this necessary to be competitive in the music industry? To some extent, yes. As my demo gets shopped to labels, I'm able to show them what my appeal is to a wider audience than just my local one, because I have customers all over the world. I can point to how many hits my website gets, how many CDs I've sold online and where those CDs are going to, and how many times a certain song has been downloaded. They're not just looking for how many people you draw at a local show, they want to know if you can attract listeners from anywhere, and how well you're able to market youself. Online and digital distribution is just one vital part of that beast now. And if a major label is not the route someone wants to go, it's infinitely helpful for those who are independent and want to remain so, since it gives them more options for reaching an audience without spending millions on marketing.
I do see some negatives to the increase of digitally available music. First of all, my biggest concern is what I view as the "Tangible and Visible" side of music. I do feel it is important to be able to hold an 'album' in your hands, view the artwork and lyrics, and feel a physical connection to the music you are hearing. Already in our lifetimes, the actual 'record' has become almost obsolete. (On the flip side, however, vinyl is now seen as "collectible" and quite coveted.) But if you think about the "tangible and visible" quality of records as compared to CDs, the first noticeable change is that on CDs everything is smaller. Not quite as visually impactful. If you have a thousand records, you really know it because it takes up half a room in your house! :) So we have CDs, which sound better, and are smaller, and now 1,000 of them can fit into a couple of shelves in your house. This is more convenient for music lovers, but CDs just aren't as "interesting." Will CDs go the way of cassette tapes? That depends, I believe, on the technology of the system, not on digital availability of music. For example, tape players sounded better than record players and 8 tracks, so people stopped buying records and 8 tracks. CDs sound better than cassettes, so people stopped buying cassettes. I don't think people will stop buying CDs in favor of digital downloads, because the comparison is not as direct. There is nothing "tangible or visible" about a digital download. I think in order for CDs to become obsolete, a better sounding device will need to be invented. And then I still believe people will want something physical they can look at. This is due to the emotional significance many people place on music, in relation to the artists that create it. I think people want to see their favorite artists live because it creates a personal connection for them between the music and the person. If you don't have the option of seeing the artist live, the pictures and artwork on an album provide the next best thing, at least SOME connection to the person creating the music. In no other art form are the art and the artists so vitally tied into each other.
As for losing the visual art with the increase of digital distribution, I sincerely hope this never occurs. I don't feel it will for a long time, at least, because I can say that my albums sell on the basis of the cover art first if someone has not heard the music yet. A good graphics job, a nice photo, can impact someone's emotions and sensibility more immediately than anything else. I can't count the number of CDs I've purchased becuse of the cover art when I'd never heard the music. (But my favorite one is Screaming Trees 'Uncle Anesthesia.' Bought that when I was 13, and it opened up my eyes.) If music stores were ever to become obsolete, I'd imagine online record stores would STILL offer complete albums with cover art and photos, because it's human nature to want to "hold and see" things. CD Baby is one of the most successful online music stores, and they rely heavily on the visual impact of your album to get people interested in reading more about it and listening to sound bytes. If someone doesn't have a clue who you are, how will they ever find you on the internet? They won't find you by name because they don't know it yet. They won't find your music by song title, because they don't know it yet. But if they go to an online music store and type in their favorite genre of music, and see your album pop up with awesome cover art, they're going to look farther. Just seeing your name and a song title won't do it for them because it's not necessarily interesting in and of itself. People need a "weeding out" method. I would never want to spend hours and hours a day clicking on song titles of people's names and just "hoping" I'd land on something good. We need more information, and visuals can provide that extra incentive to get us to look farther.
I think the value of 'album as art form' will be self-preserving. All the very best musicians have historically been concerned not with "singles" but with the flow and connectedness of the album as a whole; ten or so songs that create a musical masterpiece, rather than isolated bodies of work meant to sell commercials on the radio. Count on your Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Nick Drake, Led Zeppelin, Joan Baez and Beatles of the world (just to name a few for whom the idea of 'album' is important) to save this art form. Modern musicians can hope to aspire to this level of artistry. In the same manner that painters must learn the rules of the past before they can break them, so must musicians. We can alter the way that music gets to the people, but I don't think we can ever eradicate entirely the traditions and modes that have made music, and albums, such a central part of our lives.