The concept of ‘free’ music is nothing new to the music aficionado thanks to a number of software giants such as Napster, LimeWire, Spotify and Grooveshark that have emerged in the recent years with the development of the modern online ‘instant’ culture. Access to almost anything the industry has to offer has been facilitated by illegal music downloading since the late 1990s, when peer-to-peer networking sites enabled users to post and share music and other media files at no cost. As a result, the music industry has complained of a significant slide in record sales, and artists are relying on touring and merchandise more than ever to earn a living.
However, acclaimed New York indie boys, The Strokes, have recently joined Radiohead, The Maccabees and Nine Inch Nails to name a few, in the list of bands and artists predominantly signed by independent record labels, that have revolutionised the industry and uploaded their own free legal downloads of their material before the official release date. The single ‘Under Cover of Darkness’ which was available from www.thestrokes.com for a limited 48 hours on February 9th of this year comes from The Strokes’ long awaited album ‘Angles’, due to arrive in store and download sites from March 21st. With already over a million hits on Youtube, this first single is a precursor to what could be one of their biggest albums to date. Not only do musicians lose money when music is illegally downloaded, but the quality of music and original tone is compromised through the conversion of files and radio rips, so it is in the fan’s and their own interest that a legal copy is as easily accessible and desirable as a CD or vinyl. For this reason free and legal downloads have proven to be a sure-fire method to creating hype and publicity around upcoming albums, and sell-out tours and festivals often follow.
Pioneers of the innovative ‘free model’ were British alternative band Radiohead, who in 2007 released their album ‘In Rainbows’ on their website. They bravely put it to the individual consumers to determine the worth of the band’s music and it was perfectly acceptable to pay nothing at all. Since then it seems that musicians have realised that making music more affordable and accessible to fans, in a way that they have grown accustomed to, is the best compromise in the 21st century recessive climate and has no doubt brought music appreciation back to the forefront of artists’ drive for success.
Arguably this ‘public service’ may not be ideal for developing bands struggling to make a mark on the scene and put some money in their pockets, but on the other hand a study of the effects of online music sharing and downloading shows that it has had little impact on the fall of music sales in the past decade. The study, performed by Harvard Business School and the University of North Carolina, observed 1.75 million downloads over a 17 week period in 2002 which compared the data of file transfers with the market and chart performance of the downloaded songs and albums.
They found that it would take an estimated 5000 downloads to displace sales of just one physical CD and even high levels of file-swapping had a negligible effect on album sales that were “statistically indistinguishable from zero”.
As a devotee to music myself, I would hate to see the CD or the vinyl become obsolete and I feel there is certainly a place for them both in the market and on my own shelf for many years to come. Nevertheless, now the door is firmly open for more and more artists to start giving music away legally to the public, there’s no turning back from entering this new age in music technology.