Guest post by David Dawson
Music always seems to have been an evolving art from, from changing genres, instruments, styles and finally technologies. In 1948 vinyl records were first being used and they stuck around for a long time, but looking at the last 20 years we have moved from tape through to CDs and onto streaming via various fads and fashions in between. Streaming has possibly been the biggest advancement out of all of the previous and has changed the way we consume music entirely. From holding a physical item containing a finite number of songs to having within our devices an unlimited access to just about any music we could think of has proved invaluable to most music lovers. Naturally in a flippant world these technologies all went from hero to zero, state of the art to charity shop, so it is hard to firmly believe that streaming is going to be here forever. The question is though what could come next? I find it hard to see an advancement as big or as different as the CD or tape was for the day considering we already have just about everything, but to be honest I doubt someone from a vinyl era was picturing an iPod touch complete with doodle jump and Justin Biebers debut album. One thing is for sure though, with Sony announcing a 21% rise in streaming revenue figures last year, we are now more engaged with digital music than ever before.
With this rise, there has naturally been a decline in our more physical engagement with music, even as recent as the CD, which arguably is still fairly prominent. The market for CDs these days now seems to be nothing more than a steep cliff edge with a strict one-way system, and it is fairly plain to see why. I used to purchase CDs regularly for various reasons, all the way from knowing and enjoying the album, to simply liking the cover art. This eventually moved on to an ideal of only purchasing CDs from my favourite artists or any particular album that strikes a chord. Honestly, throwing my mind back now I can't remember the last time I even found myself in the CD section of a supermarket, let alone in a music shop or, god forbid, actually buying music. The issues in this modern world with CDs are the time, money and effort for the consumer. Firstly, there is a certain risk involved with buying a CD. This may sound strange but I guarantee most of us have been stung before, when an artist you love releases a new album or there is a particular song you enjoy on the radio, as consumers we more often than not take a 10-15 pound bet with ourselves that the rest of the album is going to live up to all of our expectations. Buying a CD on the promise of one or two songs has always been a dangerous game but was often the only choice beside dodgy covers on a stone age version of YouTube. Whilst there were occasions that albums did live up to their name, there were often occasions where they did not and we were lumbered with a constant reminder of the money we had wasted sat on our shelves. There is simply no need to take this risk in the streaming market, we have a choice, we either add the one or two songs we do enjoy to a playlist or we binge the album, and if it fails, no harm done, just an hour or so wasted. When the option of access to any music you want at any time is available, why would anyone take the time to go and purchase CDs, that have a finite number of songs, a finite amount of access and take more than a few taps to get hold of, or at least a day for delivery. Everyone wants to have everything all the time now and to be honest streaming does offer that, can you imagine carrying around the number of CDs to cover every album on Spotify or iTunes?
The move to a digital world of music strays further than streaming as it seems to have consumed all stages of the music process. When we think to how songs used to come into existence, we romanticise about times gone by of John Lennon and Paul McCartney strumming acoustic guitars and dreaming up riffs, followed by the whole gang coming together to recording them before they were pressed and sent to the world. Overall, a pretty lengthy process from start to finish involving many hours and many people. This seems miles away now when we think about producers who digitally write in catchy riffs or instrumentation on their own laptop before recording a vocal on top, all of which can be done in their own homes. Then the simple process of uploading the song to any and every platform before sharing it around on social media. To be honest, for me this is a benefit, anyone who has a passion for music can access the technology to write, record and distribute their own projects without being dictated by record labels or begging for some financial backing to get a song recorded and pressed. How many more people get to live their dreams writing and sharing their music, even as just a hobby, as a result of these developments?
The flip side of this is that instrumentalist musicians like myself are finding ourselves more and more obsolete. School funding for music is constantly undergoing cuts and I would not be surprised to see it demoted to simply an extra-curricular activity within the next ten years, if not sooner. Therefore the number of kids picking up instruments and developing musical talents is no doubt going to decrease, but in a world where a number one hit can be dreamed up on a laptop and music can be accessed anywhere, anytime, is instrumental performance really the way going forward or a simple nod back to the past?
Even live music is too paving way for the digital era; gone are the days of a drummer, bass, guitar and lead singer and in are the days of pyrotechnics, staging and a laptop. To be honest, this is often due to the music itself being much more production and technology based from the very start and including sounds not always possible to replicate on instruments. However, it does seem underwhelming that full bands and big live set ups have now been replaced with an extension lead and a computer. Live shows now seem to be much more reliant on tightly choreographed routines, quick changes and lighting to make the experience more of a show or spectacle, but does this take away from the music? Again, this is something that is easy to romanticise about, dreaming of times gone by of live instruments plugged into monstrous amplifiers, but to be honest for me a live concert has always been more about the experience, the feeling you get for an artist when you've seen them live, the atmosphere of a crowd all singing the same lyrics, and whether the music is performed digitally or not, nothing can take away the physicality of that. This for me is the key, and what reassures me that digital age or not, music is safe. Whether produced by a DJ on a MacBook or a pianist on a Steinway, that unfathomable feeling we all get singing along to our favourite tune with our favourite artist, sharing the magical moment with thousands of like-minded fans. Having this experience as a performer I can safely say the high is second to none, engaging with an audience and the fulfilled feeling of entertaining is truly breath-taking. Who cares that we can access infinite music in our pockets? We all know it's not the same. That's why artists still tour, that's why millions of us flock to festivals and that's why hundreds of shows sell out every year.
It is always easier to look back with rose coloured spectacles and thoughts of 'what if' than to look forwards, and I am as guilty of this as anyone else, but I must admit I couldn't live without streaming, it makes music so easy and I now have the opportunity to access more artists, more genres and more songs than ever, and to be honest, that for me is a huge positive. Furthermore, whilst it is easy for me to be cynical about live music being more about laptops and backing tracks and reminisce about days gone by, this is more due to music in general being more reliant on technology then is used to be, and I don't have a problem with this either. For me good music is good music whether produced on a laptop or recorded part by part with a full orchestra, or sometimes a combination of the two. So, to the original question, is the physical world of music dead, and, are we now completely digital? I think the answer is no, with a fashion of retro and vintage there will always be some nostalgia in us that looks at vinyl as some superior art form from the good old days, and one day CDs may be viewed like this too. Furthermore, the unexplainable feeling we get when taking in live music that continues to encourage people to spend all their savings on expensive tickets really underlines that human element that still exists, what is there more personal than a lyricist singing to thousands about their latest love and suffering, pains and pleasures? Nothing, is the answer. The fact that despite being stuck inside with access to as much music as we please, streaming figures are actually down and we are all staring at our now redundant tickets with sad puppy dog eyes just shows how much we still crave the human aspect of music. In a world of change the future is always scary and it's our nature to cling to fond memories of the past, and music always makes up a big part of this. As long as that remains the same, I don't think the physical age of music will ever die. The digital age is in the driving seat for now though, and to be honest, I'm excited to see where it takes us.
Hello! I'm currently studying Philosophy & Theology at Oxford University, UK. Having always loved writing and music in equal measure, and having always hated decision-making, I figured hey, why do I need to choose between the two?