With the announcement today of new iPods and a new iTunes, I think it’s time we reflected on how far we’ve come since the days of Napster and the wild west of music downloading. Along with the introduction of brand new iPods, etc. come some cold hard facts about music downloads in the current music retail climate. The numbers are fairly impressive, at least from an iTunes standpoint. In little more than a decade, iTunes has become the largest music retailer on the planet. Translation: people are buying music. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t twice as many people still downloading music illegally, but it’s a significant change that’s worth noting.
I had an enlightening moment two days ago when I went to download a Prince song (…illegally). I wasn’t looking for an entire album (BitTorrent), but only a single track from Prince’s seminal Purple Rain. How to get it? All my previous methods of obtaining a song illegally have been exhausted. LimeWire has lost in court, the other P2Ps having dropped out years ago. Even Lala, a site I had high hopes for in its golden era, has been shut down. I chuckle to myself as I realize I have nowhere to go but Amazon or iTunes to procure the track I’m looking for. What has the world come to?
I recently read an excellent interview in Vice with the president of the RIAA, Cary Sherman. The thought of such an anti-everything brand like Vice interrogating the president of an archaic, out of touch establishment left me curious from the get-go. One of the more interesting points that Sherman touched on is the fact that while the RIAA lawsuits of yesteryear against grandmas and twelve-year-olds didn’t do much for their public image, it did drive an important message to the forefront of people’s minds nationwide: downloading music is illegal. Not like, filling a bag with cashews in the grocery store and eating them while you shop illegal or taking five pieces of candy from a jar that reads “Take One” on Halloween illegal. Literally, ILLEGAL. For many (certainly not all) this is an effective deterrent. As Sherman noted, there are still plenty of people out there who wave a flag of entitlement and open-internet standards as a guise for their illegal addiction. But progress is still progress, no matter how small a step it may be.
I’m someone who still regularly pays for music (and I’m not afraid to admit it!). But I found it interesting that day I went looking for Prince how difficult it now is to track down a song to download illegally. I’m sure there are plenty of top secret sites that I don’t know about that discredit my claim, but as someone who prides himself on being technologically inclined, I was surprised to reach an impasse when the road has been so wide open for so long. It’s shocking, considering the fact that I still talk about the Napster and Morpheus and Kazaa days with my friends like they were yesterday. Does this mean that the tide is turning and people are finally abandoning their criminal mindsets about music and entitlement? Assuredly, no. BitTorrent still allows you to hop on a site and immediately download every album released in the 1970s in a manner of minutes. But it does seem like the war for the modern day single is being won by the big record companies.
Understandably so. With so many albums being released today with seven or so songs serving as filler for the three or four heavily marketed singles, people are gravitating towards buying individual tracks. Smartphones make it significantly easier to track down songs on the radio or Pandora and allow online retailers to immediately transition interest into a sale. Even if the songs people are buying are Auto-Tune the News and Justin Bieber, it’s still progress. I’m anxious to see if the trend continues and where else it may lead.