From the epoch-making phonograph records 60 years ago to the neat music cassettes in the mid-70s, the music industry, with its superb evolutionary adaptability, has successfully witnessed and undergone the vicissitudes of the entire era. However, as it progressed into the twenty-first century – an era marked by the rapid technological development and the ubiquitous use of the Internet, the music industry was caught fully off guard. For the very first time in history, the business of the music world is in chaos.
With revenues dropping, trades declining, and CDs losing ground, the music industry is now trapped in a difficult predicament. The blame has been attributed to the “greatest product” of the twenty-first century, the “new enemy in town”: digital piracy. With the growing popularity of the Internet, peer-to-peer file sharing is now more readily available, allowing the public to “steal” music online. However, is piracy truly harmful? Can mere free copies of music lead to the catastrophe for the music world, or is it just a stepping stone towards the next transitional shift?
The truth is that digital piracy may not be as prevalent as assumed, as its effects are not as significant as one may expect. Indeed, the attributes of convenience and zero charge that define this illegal act have appealed to many around the world, but “music thefts” have begun to negate the usage of pirated songs. Aside from the copyright infringement and incurring penalties of illegal downloading, digital music piracy oftentimes carries the disadvantage of having encrypted, corrupted or spoofed files since no inspection is involved, leading to major inconvenience for the customer (or illegal downloader, if you will). One may simply waste too much time trying to find a usable and high quality song to listen to. As a result, legal streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora take the lead with their easy accessibility and their lack of spywares and viruses. Hence, digital piracy has been falling out of vogue and has yet to pose a viable threat to the vulnerable music industry.
So why exactly has the music industry encountered the unfortunate situation of disappointing income? The drastic shift from physical to digital forms of music within the past decade provides a major explanation. The emergence of digital music causes a return to single song sales as opposed to full album sales, making it difficult to make up for the loss of the high-profit physical album versus the low marginal profit of the digital download. Consequently, it could be that the music industry’s financial woes stem more from the digital revolution, bringing about changes from a high to low margin product, than from the digital piracy itself.
As a highly controversial topic, the reason for the struggle of the music industry has no definite answer. Some may view it as the inevitable consequence of the universal Internet and the rapid-growing technology, while others may see it as an ordinary transition towards digital age. However, no matter which side proves more accurate, so long as the music industry still suffers, actions need to be taken to bring it back to its prime.
This article originally appeared in the April, 2014 issue of UNIT-E. It was written by Donna Zhang, a student at the Beijing World Youth Academy.
UNIT-E was founded in the spring of 2010 with the aim of establishing a non-profit, student-run magazine for international students in Beijing. Staffed by current students from a range of international schools, the magazine provides an amalgam of cultural tidbits, fragments of Beijing student life, and a broad spectrum of unique perspectives from a diverse group of young adults.