Music gets its mojo back

A decade ago, I started ripping my CDs to MP3s, because it was the logical thing to do. iPods and other MP3 players hadn’t appeared on the market yet, but the music playing software WinAmp was taking the geek world by storm – imagine a world without CDs, and only digital files.

No more stupid CD jewel cases that cracked and collected dust, no more CDs that got scratched and became unplayable!

Of course, the rest of the world didn’t understand what MP3s were about. Ripping CDs was purely for techies (and this guy in my NTU hostel who let everyone access his ridiculously huge collection of ripped Mandarin CDs through the hostel LAN network) and audiophiles thought we were nuts for listening to compressed music.

Naturally, music publishers didn’t understand the whole digital music revolution either. File-sharing providers Napster and Audiogalaxy took off in the late 90s because the killer application was music files. Videos were then too clunky and ungainly to be shared, but everyone understood the power of a 3MB MP3 file.

So for most of the past decade, the foolish executives in music companies went after file-sharing sites, downloaders and even their own consumers.

One of the first albums to be slapped with digital rights management (DRM) in Singapore was Natalie Imbruglia’s White Lilies Island. Obviously, it didn’t do well, and this was largely due to the negative sentiment around the inability to rip the CD. Today, I still have one Pet Shop Boys anthology that I realised too late to my horror was un-rippable.

Anyway, it took the music industry an entire decade to wake up.

Today, Apple announced the iTunes Store and its 10 million songs will go fully DRM-free this year. The first thing I did today at 4am was to switch on iTunes, and upgrade 70 of my purchases to higher-quality, unprotected versions for US$0.30 a pop. The rest will be upgraded later this quarter. Now I can finally use “My Humps” as my ringtone!

So what happened in the past decade when music companies ran around like headless chickens? As a music lover, I watched the entire tragedy in despair.

1. The entire CD industry melted down. With the absence of DRM-free purchases, young people chose illegal downloads over overpriced CDs. I always thought it was ridiculous to pay $25 for a CD which essentially costs less than $1 to manufacture. And most of the fat margins probably went to music marketing and publishers, rather than artistes themselves.

2. The music artistes themselves suffered from market fragmentation and reduced influence. No longer do we have megastars like Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston who could move millions of singles and albums at a go. With marketing fragmentation and severely reduced profits, no one artist could hope to become a diva or pop icon as those in prior decades. Which publisher could afford to place a major bet on one star when a majority of his singles would be illegally downloaded?

Personally, I also believe that’s why modern music is so difficult for me to listen to – artistes don’t know how to market themselves or write music for a wide global audience, only niches.

3. Great music stores like Tower Records died. ‘Nuff said.

4. MTV went downhill too. Actually, I’m not really sure what happened here, but the minute MTV started focusing on reality TV and other non-music content, many people stopped seeing MTV as a source of new music appreciation. I remember being glued to MTV as a teenager, eager to watch new music videos and those hot VJs.

But with illegal downloads and the Internet, who needed MTV for music sampling? The reduction in marketing funds for artistes also meant a cut in the video production process. YouTube took over MTV’s original function, but now Viacom has cut off a lot of bootleg and official music videos from YouTube – yet another move that will further dampen the music business that MTV depends on for its survival.

C’mon, why lock out old videos like Take On Me? You can watch that on MTV.com BUT only in the US of A. And do publishers actually think selling music videos is a viable business? Sheesh.

5. Kids started to assume music should be free, because it is so easily downloaded. That’s why music stores are dying too.

6. Audiophiles suffered too. They were dragged kicking and screaming into the CD age, and now, publishers didn’t want to invest further in Super Audio CDs or HDCDs anymore because the CD cash-cow was dying. These days, I’m always amused to see "What Hi-Fi” magazine feature MP3 players when the audiophiles used to snub the technology to death. Then again, not many audiophiles realise that the whole Golden Ears paradigm (“you can hear a great difference with this $1000 audio cable!”) is mostly marketing BS. How many of us live in sound-proof houses?

Now lest you think the worst of me, I have my own audiophile grade equipment at home, but I’m more than happy to hook up my iPods to them and enjoy the music without worrying if I can hear invisible nuances. My CDs are all collecting dust in boxes, and my NAD CD player is acting funny from disuse.

7. Apple became the unlikely savior of the music industry. Strange that a tech company should come in to fix the whole problem, but perhaps it’s good that Steve Jobs is a music lover himself. He hit out at DRM (read his seminal commentary here) even though iTunes was doing great selling billions of protected songs at 99 cents each.

The logic was simple and obvious to digital music lovers – DRM had to go, because the situation was not sustainable to either consumers who were locked in to the iPod, or to music companies who had to decide which portable player platform to support. And 90% of sales were still in CDs, which was DRM-free anyway, but is effectively obsolete with digital distribution. So, once you take away DRM, the music industry should theoretically correct itself.

When I was still a tech journo, it was already clear several years ago that iPods would dominate the music player industry. While competitors have produced great competing hardware, iPod’s other killer app was the iTunes Store which had too strong a headstart.

Note: In Singapore, locals have mostly never tasted the iTunes Store (“huh, simi lai?”) and that’s why there’s still a general immaturity around digital purchases. Only a minority like me use a US account and pre-paid cards to purchase off iTunes, and truly understand what the deal with digital purchases is.

You probably think that iTunes going DRM-free is no big deal, since Amazon.com has been doing that for some time. But Amazon doesn’t have its own iPod, and for millions of iPod owners, today is a staggering milestone in music history.

Our music has become free to enjoy on our different devices, and people will remember why they should pay for good music. For everyone else who insists on illegal downloads of songs, they probably didn’t love music in the first place. 

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