An Ode to the Digital Download, and Its Impending Death
What happens when the future dies before it’s happened?
(Lead illustration by Dan Evans)
Forever death seemed distant. The blurred, black outline of a distant shark as I held my breath in the clear blue sea. It was a shape I recognised but only through stories and pictures in battered books. Death was someone I knew of, but not to speak to. Now, suddenly, my friends, they are dying – some before I even knew them. In an instant I am old. Now I learn that the outline I saw was misdirection, nothing but a speck on my vision. Now I learn that the shark, the real shark, was behind me all along.
Now I learn that the digital download is probably going to die soon.
If you thought 2016 was bad for high profile deaths then you really haven't seen anything yet. If progress marches on at its unceasing current rate – which it will, it always does – then 2017 could be the year of a mighty, and mightily unexpected, fall. Brace yourselves to bid farewell to the digital download as a paid proposition (the illegal digital download still soldiers on, in its lesser but still powerful form). Just over a decade since Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" secured its eternal position on pub quiz answer-sheets by becoming the first song ever to top the UK charts on downloads alone, the format looks set to be eclipsed entirely by the unstoppable dominance of streaming services.
In 2015, Warner Music announced that they had made more revenue that year from streaming than they had from downloads – becoming the first major music label to hit that milestone. And the trend continued last year, with a Billboard report revealing that The Chainsmokers' "Closer" was the number one with the fewest downloads since 2006. As music analyst Mark Mulligan points out in an interview for the Guardian, "Last year downloads declined by 16% in nominal terms. This year they are tracking to decline by between 25% and 30%."
In even worse news for the little old digital download, Apple have already hinted that the re-imagined version of iTunes will prioritise Apple Music over the download store, because who the hell is still spending time in the download store? It is no doubt a matter of time before they only offer Apple Music, and by extension, downloading music (legal or otherwise) slips from consumer minds and common habit.
We've still got the memories. For most born between 1988-2000, the digital download has played a supporting role in many formative moments. Uploading Jack Johnson albums onto an MP3 player the size of a bar of soap, just so girls would share your headphones on the bus home. Trying to download Metallica albums from Limewire, only to get a dodgy impression of Bill Clinton croaking "my fellow Americans," in return. Receiving iTunes vouchers for Christmas, spending them instantly and feeling a limp disappointment as though you were never given anything at all. Scenes I'm sure we're all familiar with, as the format that was never really there in the first place soundtracked our comings and goings.
All this, by the way, a very undignified end for the digital download. If it is going to die on us in the near future, then that means it has failed to outlive vinyl – which is currently enjoying its biannual slew of "people still buy wax" think-pieces. Last November, vinyl sales surpassed digital in the UK for the first time ever, by £2.4million to £2.1million. In fact, the digital download might not even manage to outlive the CD. People still go into Tesco and buy the latest Michael Ball and Alfie Boe compilation on CD – your mum is doing it right now – and CD players are still being used in cars and kitchens around the world. That's a bad look for the digital download, not even outliving the CD. Pretty embarassing imo. The one format the download is supposed to have rendered obsolete is now laughing at its pitiful sales.
Still, as we come to eulogise the humble MP3, we should never forget what a giant killer it was. It completely did away with old ideas of music production and distribution, turning it into something that could be made and sold by anyone from anywhere. Unlike streaming, which has silently assimilated into our lives, the digital revolution felled the music industry like an outstretched decaying tree. Labels floundered as they attempted to cope with the profit deficit, and protect their sales in the face of rampant file-sharing. Artists pleaded with listeners urging them against illegal downloading unless they wanted real-life members of Keane to starve. The format scalped many of music's previously untouchable institutions, none more prominent than the commercial music store – Virgin Megastore and HMV are two major examples of UK retail outlets which suffered closure and administration thanks to the digital revolution.
The digital download, if only for a moment, seemed to be catalysing the end of music as a commercial entity entirely. The age of huge studio albums was over in place of bedroom produced and distributed mixtapes. Ceiling-high hi-fis became handheld devices. A once decadent, powerhouse of an industry was dismantled overnight, and the artform was cheapened (or democratised, depending on how you look at it). As CNN put it on iTunes 10th birthday: "a decade of iTunes singles killed the music industry." Electric Light Orchestra became Electric Six.
Yet for those of us too young to be pathologically attached to physical formats, the digital download didn't devalue music necessarily. Instead, it characterised teenage years listening to and sharing music with greater freedom than any generation before us. We no longer had to rely on whichever NOW compilation was available in Woolworths. We had our pick of the lot. Files dribbling through modems, late nights spent burning eyes in front of white computer screens. Rain on the window, parents in bed, waiting for a 69p Maximo Park single to complete.
What does this say about us, or more appropriately, the teenagers who are growing up with streaming as their primary source of music? Well, it will likely make us even more nomadic in our tastes and habits. It's one thing not owning a physical version of an album, but generation-stream won't even own the MP3. They'll just pull down a stream from somewhere out in space, listen once, and then the let the memory dissipate like foam on water. At least my iTunes library gave me something to hold on to, at least I know how many times I've listened to "Two Weeks" by Grizzly Bear (134).
The demise of the digital download now leaves some of us in the very unusual position of having large MP3 libraries that have been rendered kinda meaningless. Like my dad pitifully carting all his John Denver vinyls up to the attic, only to find, some twenty-years later he was going to have to do the same with all of his John Denver CDs, I'm now left with a library of some 14,575 songs on my hands. Pity us, the mugs who thought the future was here, now left hulking thousands of files up into external hard drives we'll never connect to again, left to gather dust alongside a Little Britain boxset and your iPod classic. Maybe I'll be a purist, I think. I'll fix my iPod classic, I'll buy an old one on eBay if it dies. I'll get really into MP3 compression and complain loudly about Spotify's bitrate. Fuck. The digital download is dead, and it's turning me into my father.
Perhaps most disconcerting of all, is how quickly this has happened. The impending death of the digital download feels like an odd and unimaginable instance wherein the future dies before it has happened. Like a train that has terminated long before its final stop, downloading music has burned brightly into a sudden silence that none of us could have predicted. For the first time in my life, I'm being forced to reckon with the idea that my cultural context is not young, is not cutting edge. The digital download still feels like the new, yet it isn't, it is old, obsolete, defunct, pointless, rusty, rotten and sick. The lurid colours of iPod nano commercials have started running, the dancing silhouettes are a washed out muddy-grey.
"I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind, there was something so special about that place, even your emotions had an echo, in so much space…"
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