From Physical to Invisible: How Owning Music has Changed Over the Years

Streaming services are taking over, but does that decide the fate of physical music?

record playing

On the busy streets of Lakeshore Blvd., a small building sits quietly inbetween a law firm and a clothing store. From the outside, this building seems old and rundown, but on this inside there’s a variety of objects that hit the “pause button” on time for many people. As soon as you walk in, you’re hit with an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. This building, well known as Village Vinyl Record Emporium and Café, has hundreds of vinyls and CD’s waiting to be purchased and listened to.

The music industry is definitely not what it used to be. Music has gone from being distributed as physical records to invisible files that are downloaded from the internet. Today, it’s quite possible to run into someone who has never even seen a record player in person. This is because of the direct effect that technology of streaming services have on the music industry.

Ever since vinyl was first created in the 1800s, people have been able to bring music into their home and control what they listen to. Since then, there have been major developments in music distribution that allow people to have total control over how they listen to music. Thanks to streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify, people can listen to chart-toppers in dozens of genres, snippets of albums, and create their own playlists. Owning music has come quite a long way from where it started, which makes some wonder if physically owning music will survive in this era of technology.

Decades ago, the only way to own music was if you saved up your money and headed to the local record store to purchase your favourite band’s record on vinyl. This was very popular in the mid 1900s when doing this was considered a social activity. Keith, owner of Village Vinyl, says he went crazy for buying records, “I have been a lifelong collector of vinyl and music in general, and I had this massive collection of records.”

This social activity eventually turned into more of a hobby for people like Keith. Hard-core vinyl fans would begin to be known as collectors, showing up at dozens of record stores in hopes of finding the albums that would build their precious collections. By purchasing vinyls, fans would be single-handedly increasing the music industry’s revenue to a new high. Artists were earning more, labels were making money off turnover time between artist’s album releases, and record stores were profiting off fan’s purchases. This trend would continue for a long time which resulted in a rich economy for music distribution, only to be phased out by a newer, cheaper, and more compact technology.

CD’s were the next significant invention that had a direct effect on the music industry. These compact discs were introduced in the early 1980s, with ABBA’s "The Visitors" being the first commercially released CD in 1981. This marked the beginning of a new era for music lovers. CD’s were revolutionary back then because it was the first time that music could be mobile. The Walkman allowed for people to put in their CD of choice and take their music on the go by clipping their Walkman on to the pants and putting on headphones. Some say this was the first time that music became mobile.

The invention of the CD also had an impact on the revenue of the music industry. Similarly, to vinyl, CD’s were physically sold from CD and record stores, however they didn’t turn as much profit as vinyl. Because of its new technology, CD’s were cheaper to make, which means they could not be sold at the high price that records are sold. This began the downward trend of sales within music distribution.

Perhaps the next wave of technology within the music industry had the most negative impact on the economy. Digital downloads or .MP3 files were the next big hit. These were files that anyone could download from the internet with just a bit of knowledge about how some of the services worked.

Music Sound Wave

However, before major companies and labels could figure out the best way to get music to their consumers, two computer programmers beat them to the punch. In June of 1999, the two created Napster, the first peer-to-peer sharing service that allowed for the free distribution of .MP3 files over the internet. People could use this service to select specific songs they want, download them for free, and put them onto their MP3 players or iPods. For artists this feeling was the exact opposite. It would now be harder than ever to make a living off releasing music. When Napster was released, well-known Canadian music correspondent and social media guru Eric Alper said, “I knew when Napster hit that it was all over.”

While this free service was beneficial for consumers who couldn’t afford to buy albums every time their favourite artist or band came out with new music, it had detrimental effects to the music industry’s economy.

"Once something is free, and it’s something that people are used to paying for, that was gonna be a big problem. Once you let the genie out of the bottle, it’s hard to get it back in again,” says Alper.

This moment in music history would be a pivotal one that changed the way music is consumed forever.

Many illegal services were created over the years thanks to Napster. However, while consumers were using these illegal services, music companies were figuring out their own way to legally distribute music electronically that would also generate a profit.

Eight years after these services were released, a company that is still well known today got in on the business and Spotify was created. The service would go through some testing years before it reached the prestigious status it has today. They spent years developing algorithms that weren’t offered anywhere else.

Eventually, it gained popularity and would be known as arguably the best streaming service the internet offers. For a free subscription, consumers can listen to whatever songs they want when they want, create their own playlists, as well as have songs and playlists curated just for them based off their unique algorithms.

The only thing preventing this from being the best experience is the ads that are played after every few songs. Consumers have the option to get rid of the ads by purchasing a premium account for a small monthly fee of $10.

Looped in with the top streaming services today is Apple Music. With its release in 2015, Apple Music is extremely similar to Spotify where the music is curated to the individual for a small monthly fee. The only difference lies within the algorithms used to curate individual’s playlists. Catherine Moore, a professor in the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto who has experience in the business aspect of the music industry says, “Users really like it, and it’s opened up people to many more types of music then was ever possible in physical format.”

While these two streaming services are dominating the industry, it’s hard to believe that artists can make a profit off such a small streaming fee. Quentin Burgess, Communications Manager at Music Canada says that this has a large effect on the industry’s economy, “The value gap is probably the biggest issue for the music sector worldwide. We define it as ‘significant disparity between the creative content that is accessed and enjoyed by consumers and the revenue that are returned to the people are the businesses that create it.’” Statistics provided by Music Canada show that today’s music is generally being consumed through digital services like Apple Music and Spotify, which means more and more artists are struggling to make a profit in the industry. According to this report, it’s becoming harder to make a living off releasing music on streaming services.“It is largely due largely to how some online digital service providers (i.e. YouTube) take advantage of safe harbour laws around the world. Some of these services are siphoning billions of dollars out of the system, paying out royalties that are only fractional compared to the massive consumption levels these services enjoy.”

Julia Finnegan, an artist from Kingston, ON who has experience releasing songs through physical copies as well as digital services is currently fighting this uphill battle. She expresses her opinons about making money in the music industry as an upcoming artist and says it's becoming very tough to make a living, “as performers starting out, it makes it a little bit more difficult." Though challenging, she doesn’t regret putting herself out there for others to listen to and enjoy. She says that it’s not about the money for her, but rather about the way singing makes her feel and how her songs make other people feel, “When I preform I really like the way people receive lyrics, it’s nice to see how people react. That and sharing my stories are my favourite part about what I do.”

Streaming services have caused artists to look for other ways to make an income because the music industry is not supplying them with a stable way to earn money. With so many ways to consume music, artists are trying their best to constantly release music in order to support what they love, but sometimes that’s not enough. In recent years, artists have taken a step into the past and revamped the idea of vinyl. Buying vinyl these days is now considered a hipster activity; however, this demographic and the people who haven’t stopped collecting vinyls are a large enough group to keep the businesses like Village Vinyl open for years to come. “Vinyl purchases are pretty much all ages and tend to want to dig and find things. It’s a mix of people that have been collecting for a long time and over the last three or four years, there has been a marked change with the trendiness of owning a record player and buying records,” says Keith.

Provided by Music Canada
Provided by Music Canada
Provided by Music Canada
Provided by Music Canada
Provided by Music Canada
Provided by Music Canada