Music digitalisation: Does CD stand for Certain Doom?

Compact discs have long been the symbol of the music industry. Since their commercial introduction in 1982 as a joint venture between Phillips and Sony, over 200 billion CDs have been sold across the world (according to the BBC). That’s an average of one million discs every hour.

But CD sales have slumped in recent years and global sales in 2009 will be half the level of the peak of the CD boom according to a survey by Enders.

Download services, such as iTunes or HMV Music, now generate around 7.5% of album purchases in the UK, a figure which rose 36% in 2008. (Sources: Offcom Digital Britain Report and The Guardian)

Illegal downloading is also still on the rise, with some 40 billion tracks being shared on sites like Limewire and Bittorrent in 2008 across 16 countries. Efforts by the Government to curb the rise have been met with apathy by the ‘internet generation’ – 14 to 24 year-olds – who “know that file sharing is illegal but will exploit whatever technology is available to enable them to enlarge their music collections for free” according to The Times.

Unfortunately for the industry, these illegal downloads make up 95% of the music being exchanged across the internet, losing artists and record companies £180m every year. Many alternative artists have voiced that they don’t mind how people get their music as long as they hear it, but you feel as though few record company executives would agree.

The silver lining is that in a study conducted by the University of Hertfordshire which says 85% of the age group in question said they would continue to buy CDs even if they were given access to an unlimited legal download service. This shows that people still put value in ‘owning’ things rather than just ‘streaming’ them from internet services such as Last.fm or Spotify.

The reason that many feel it’s ‘OK’ to download music is “mainly because it’s free and they are not going to get caught”, according to Feargal Sharkey, the former Undertones singer and chief executive of UK Music, an umbrella organisation which represents the industry.

Despite best efforts, talks between the industry and the Government have been crawling along for the past few years, with the Government last year proposing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should use a ‘three-strike’ letter writing system to warn offenders, giving them the responsibility to directly tackle the problem, which was reiterated in the Digital Britain report.

Punishments range from having bandwidth curbed to their internet being permanently suspended, according to The Times. Unfortunately there is still no right answer, and the discussions continue. We wondered what people really thought about it all, so we asked you:

Sarah White, 19, from Woodham said “You should be allowed to download music for free depending how long it’s been out for.”

Andy Hemphill, 22, from Ewell said “Illegal downloading isn’t immoral because music companies make music too expensive and are too slow to pick up on digital sales. It may be illegal but it will continue until they lower the cost of music.”

Lis Symons, 19, from Sandhurst said “I only download from iTunes now, because the others are all too much hassle. I always got viruses when I used Limewire, it’s like it’s one big virus.”

Colin Miller, 29, from London said “Maybe I’m just old and bitter but the good music doesn’t get the credit it deserves these days, as most of it gets swallowed up by the X-Factor money-making machine.”

Kirsty Watkinson, 21, from Darwen said “There’s nothing more delightful than having something concrete that you can touch and put up on the wall to represent the music you like, that’s why I love CDs so much, but having digital copies of songs from CD is safer because they can’t get scratched.”

MP3 players, specifically Apple’s revolutionary iPod, have been the driving force behind music digitalisation and now almost half the population (48%) of people own and actively use and MP3/4 or mobile phone music player. This percentage hasn’t increased significantly in the last two years though, suggesting the market may be at saturation point.

The industry has tried to react to changing consumer demand, with companies investing millions in music subscription services , but according to industry critics Deloittle, it’s not enough:

“Music services may need to merge consumer features and benefits, such as a subscription service that comes with other deliverables e.g. portability and CDs, for consumers to believe that a music service is worth paying for.”

CDs may be fading away in the industry but they’re far from dying out altogether. There’s no question they’ll be lying around cluttering up our lofts for some time to come, and there’s a certain charm to listening to an album all the way through while as the artist intended.

One thing’s for sure though, downloads are here to stay, and without punishments for downloaders there’s no reason for people to stop, and with the number of tracks available increasing by thousands a day, why would they want to go all the way down the shops?

James Michael Parry

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