Monday, March 11, 2013

How the smartphone powered a digital music boom

Fred Bolza/The Telegraph - UK

The music industry posted a 0.3 per cent increase in revenues in 2012, according to a recent IFPI report, which is newsworthy because it is the first time the business has seen growth in 14 years.

Whether you think this is a reason to pop open the bubbly or just a blip on the way to oblivion, it does allow for some thoughts on how things have changed since the days when shiny plastic disc ruled the earth.

It has been a choppy ride for the music business over the past decade and a half but listeners now have considerably more options for discovery, consumption and sharing of music than they did in 1999.

Music fans now have greater choice, both in terms of access and price, and that's a good thing. However, this proliferation of choice has brought challenges for consumers too.

For instance, if I have access to every piece of music ever made how do I find anything? How do I discover anything other than what I already know? And once I’m past that hurdle, how do I form a lasting relationship with an ephemeral digital file rather than a physical object I can see and touch? How do I choose between downloading, streaming, subscription and whatever else? The list goes on.

As someone whose job it is to consider these issues, I would argue that 2012 was the year in which a much wider cross section of music consumers began to go digital and this is a key factor underpinning the growth mentioned above.

Why did this happen last year of all years, considering that we have had over a decade of digital music already? Because the combination of music, technology and services that make up the so-called digital 'ecosystem', finally started to align in a way that makes it more convenient for more types of people to consume this way, rather than the old way.

In terms of content, and course I would say this working for a music company, you need a steady flow of great music. Whether your preference is Adele, One Direction or old Duke Ellington numbers there needs to be something for everyone.

The music industry enables this not just by finding and developing new talent but also by finding new ways to make classic recordings easily discoverable and available. Interestingly, to illustrate this point about discovery, this year has seen significant growth in digital compilations. Declared dead at the hand of the playlist only a few years ago, compilations are now proving to be a great way for people to find and aggregate music.

From a technology perspective, last year saw the smartphone enter the mainstream and become an important way of experiencing music. With its portability, ease of use and prodigious computing power as well as the always-on connection it provides to all that music, the smartphone is rapidly becoming a key hub for managing your relationship with music (and entertainment in general).

In addition, it is yours. You don’t share it with your kids or partner as you might a home computer and that makes it deeply personal. If you believe music is a key signifier of identity then this personal dimension becomes an even more powerful trigger.

Finally from a service level, we have started to see music services come into their own through their marriage to the smartphone and deliver real value to consumers. Be it download stores, streaming services or music discovery apps, the smartphone offers greater simplicity than any other device in joining up discovery to paid consumption in a seamless fashion.

So it is with cautious optimism that I welcome last year’s results and look forward to more of the same in 2013, not just from the vantage point of a person in the business, but rather as a consumer of music who is genuinely excited about the value and convenience finally on offer to us all.

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