I remember it perfectly. It was 2000 and I had just stepped in the house and turned on the television. MTV reported that Eminem's highly anticipated follow up, The Marshall Mathers LP, had been “leaked” through some file-sharing service called Napster. The brief description of Napster—a computer program that allowed people to download music for free over the internet—seemed too good to be true. Skeptical but interested, I jumped online and did some research. I found Napster's website and downloaded the program. I searched for the new Eminem record and found it in under thirty seconds. After about twenty minutes of downloading, I had half the album. I called in sick to work and spent the next two days downloading everything I could think of. I knew immediately that the future of music had arrived.
The year after I discovered Napster, iPod was launched. Suddenly all of this music that had overwhelmed my hard drive could now be carried with me at all times. Not long after, iTunes was introduced. Critics scoffed at the idea (why would someone pay for something tthey can get for free?) it has since become a heavyweight in music retail. People, it seems, are more than happy to support those whose create the art they enjoy. What they don’t like is being charged through the nose. Paying only ninety-nine cents a song and ten dollars for an album, people finally had an avenue to turn to after consistent complaints about the increasing price of physical CD's.
The seismic shift in how music is released and distributed has sent shock waves through the industry. Record sales have decreased steadily almost every single year since 2000. And while certainly this has put the multi-billion dollar business in flux, there’s still good money to be made. Labels can make money through cross promotion and licensing. And artists can make money through touring and merchandise, which was always the lions share of their revenue anyway. The true casualties of this shift are the brick and mortar CD store, which has seen it's numbers decline almost exponentially in the last decade.
Our love and appreciation for an artform can get as much of its meaning from the locations where we interact with it. Your favorite room in the museum, your preferred seat in the local movie theater. If you were obsessed with music growing up then you certainly had your own store, the one place that felt like a sanctuary. Mine was called Relax Music. It was on the main street of my little town and it carried all of my musical needs. I bought my rap mix tapes from the likes of Lazy-K and Kid Capri there as well as my bootleg videos of Tool and Marilyn Manson. Sonic Youth or Mudhoney was always playing over the stereo system. It smelled of incense and faded leather and you never knew who was a customer and who was an employee because there were no name tags and no one was ever behind the counter.
Before the words “Napster” and “Peer2peer” and “iTunes” even entered the lexicon, local chains were feeling the pressure from the big box stores. Because of their size, major chains like Wal-Mart and Best Buy (which now make up more than 50% of all music sold in North America) can sell CD's more cheaply than their smaller competitors and spread whatever loss they might accrue across their other divisions. What's important to them is that you go into their store and buy music (and whatever else) only from them.
The smaller stores are trying to cope anyway they know how. The most common approach is to move into the secondary market, buying and selling used CDs, DVDs, and videogames. And there is good money in that business model. Buying a two year old copy of Back To Black by Amy Winehouse at six dollars and selling it for nine gives them a profit margin higher then they ever had selling it new. But there is something oddly poetic about a once thriving industry now striving to stay afloat by selling the memories of its past. Or perhaps I'm being too sentimental. Either way, it's only a stop gap measure and something that can't be sustained for any lasting amount of time.
With any sea change, there are are good and bad repercussions. An obvious positive is the ease of absorption. No sooner then I can read or hear about a band then watch a video, official or fan-made, on youtube, download a couple mp3's from their official website, and decide to buy their album on iTunes or Emusic. From a consumer's point of view, this allows me as much freedom as possible to know quite solidly if I like an artist's music and am willing to invest in them. No longer are the days when one buys an album purely off the strength of a single or the cover of an album only to be disappointed by the product. Caveat emptor no more.
But in a way, that is also a negative. There are no more surprises. There is such a notion as too much information, especially in regards to an artform that gets much of it's strength from first impressions. In the handful of times I've been in a record store the last seven years and saw an album cover from a band that piqued my interest, I went home and researched them completely before buying it online. The notion of impulsively buying the album, sound unheard, now sounds completely asinine to me despite knowing that some of my most cherished moments as a music fan have been the sense of discovery that comes with the cold purchase. The feeling you're the only person in the world who knows about this band, this musical secret.
I am a part of the last generation that went to the record store every week. Tuesday afternoons were a ritual for me. I would head over and peruse the new release section, spending an hour or more. I would read the review sections of the magazines off the rack to help inform my purchases. If someone in the store was wearing a shirt of a band I liked, I asked them what they would recommend. .
All of that is gone now or very close to it. iTunes allows downloading of new records on Tuesdays to coincide with the release of the physical disc, but it isn't a rule. Radiohead released their latest album on a Wednesday, Bloc Party posted their third album on a Thursday. Both seemingly arbitrarily and months before an actual CD would take up the space on a shelf. And who needs to put up with the eye-rolling sarcasm and self-righteousness of the music store clerk in person when you can just go read his blog for his picks?
I suppose whatever reservations I have with this inevitable evolution of the music business is the same people are facing with the surge of technology being thrust upon them; the seemingly impersonality of it all. It still blows my mind that I have the equivalent of a thousand CD's -- over a month's worth of music -- in my shirt pocket. That amazement can only come from someone who remembers what it was like before such advancements. When the next generation comes fully into the fold, with fans that accept and even expect their favourite indie band to be a click away, then the final bell will toll on the music store.