This week, in the vanishingly small corner of the media that wasn’t devoted to goggle-eyed iPad worship (an iPhone that doesn’t fit in your pocket – brilliant!), news that the inventor of the MP3 had developed a new, ‘deluxe’ music format caused a minor stir (and I do mean minor, it’s not like they debated it on Loose Women or anything).
It certainly sounds impressive. This souped-up, gym-honed, T1000-style music file, called MusicDNA, is apparently capable of packaging up lyrics, videos, artwork and blog posts. Granted, it can’t do everything. It can’t digitally convert a Susan Boyle ballad into something listenable. It won’t cradle your balls while you listen, or spray you with a fine mist of Givenchy Pour Homme. But still: intriguing.
But that’s all it is. A minor upgrade, of interest primarily to geeks and industry insiders. What it most definitely isn’t is the Future Of Music. Because anyone who’s clocked the proliferation of streaming sites recently – Sky Songs, Spotify, We7, Myspace Music, Grooveshark – will know that music’s future doesn’t lie in formats at all. The age of ownership is over. Increasingly music exists ‘out there’, in the cloud, not on our iPods or hard drives.
But there’s a problem with this streaming revolution. No-one’s paying for it. Spotify has 7 million users worldwide. Around 250,000 of them - just over 3% - have upgraded to a paid subscription. That can’t possibly be enough. And if you think Spotify can make up the shortfall with a few Tory party adverts, you’re deluded.
The fact is, free music streaming supported by ads will never be sustainable. It’s no surprise that We7 have just introduced a paid-for upgrade. Right now Spotify is still in the business of snaring as many users as possible (“It’s about building scale, not profitability”, says We7’s Steve Purdham).
Echoing internet libertarians everywhere, Spotify boss Daniel Ek has said, “Information ultimately wants to be free.” But he knows it can’t stay that way. Sooner or later, the hard sell will begin. You’re going to be asked to pay. And my conviction is that, for the sake of the music industry, and the livelihoods of the bands you love, you should pay.
Maybe I’m biased here. I’m a Spotify subscriber (to quote Adam and Joe, other steaming services are available). But, at risk of sounding like a hateful techno-bore, the experience of using Spotify on an Android phone, complete with offline playlists – ie the ability to listen to songs even when you’re not connected to the internet – is dazzlingly slick. Instinctively, it feels like the future.
And it can be - if we start signing up in significant numbers. In Sweden, where subscriber take-up is highest, Spotify generates more money for labels and musicians than iTunes. There’s a sustainable model there. So what’s holding us back? Music subscriptions generally cost around £10 a month. Millions of people pay five times that to use a gym (or not use it, in my case).
We need to start thinking of music as something we pay for habitually, like a TV licence, or broadband, or the gas bill. As shouty industry analyst Bob Lefsetz puts it: “Instead of paying ten bucks for an album, you pay ten bucks for music.” Why not? I’d argue that if you’re not willing to shell out a tenner a month for unlimited access to music, you’re not really much of a music fan.
Sure, there are issues to iron out, not least of them the question of who profits from subscription. We need to ensure money flows into the pockets of musicians, and not just those of streaming sites and major labels (one report recently suggested that Lady GaGa had made only $167 from 1 million Spotify plays – barely enough to keep her in exploding bras).
But if we get it right, subscription on a mass scale potentially solves almost every problem the music business faces. It kills piracy – with the death of ownership comes the death of theft – and injects a fresh flow of cash into an industry whose profits have been ripped down to zero and beyond by a generation of freetards.
You may say: Fuck you, I won’t pay what you tell me. But it’s not a question of enriching the Lady GaGas of this world. Bear in mind that the more money there is in the industry, the more investment there can be in new bands, and the fewer NME-scale acts we'll see getting dropped after one album.
Richer labels, better music? I don’t think that’s too naïve a hope. But ultimately it's not about fuzzy abstractions like the 'state of the industry'. It's about us as listeners, and the value we place on creativity. We need to make a decision - do we care about music enough to pay for it?