Keeping up with a rapidly evolving musical landscape.

THE music industry is in transiton. The CD appears to be outdated. The vinyl record may be resurrected but is likely to remain the format of the avid collector. Music downloads are increasing but hardly sufficiently to compensate for the modest sales of physical formats – much less to eradicate illegal downloading. And streaming, admittedly with great potential, is only just discovering itself. Certainly, it appears, digital distribution is the inevitable future.

“The transition represents the most significant change the music industry has seen since the invention of the sound recorder”, states Tommi Kyyrä from IFPI Finland. “The music industry was the first to experience digitalisation, and, as a result, we have a variety of functional services available to the consumer.” Kyyrä voices his confidence in the industry’s adaptability.

While conceding that digital distribution is the future, Kyyrä nevertheless rejects notions of the rapid demise of physical formats. “Despite the decline in sales, I believe the CD will survive in the foreseeable future. Limited and special editions, especially, will continue to attract the consumer, and will thereby keep the format alive.”

Meanwhile, the record is making a comeback, albeit an unobtrusive one. “Actual sales remain marginal, but the fact that special and limited editions are increasingly being made available is very encouraging”.
In fact, the record has captivated many a staunch supporter of digital distribution. “Still, the record is likely to remain a complementary product; not part of the mainstream,” predicts Kyyrä.

While digital sales are growing in Finland, they hardly compare to those of, say, Sweden, where digital sales account to over 50 per cent of all music sales – a share that, as Kyyrä reminds, is largely attributable to the popularity of Spotify.

The global success of iTunes, on the other hand, can be attributed to positive user-experience. “Although one should not discredit the influence of the closed [Apple] environment,” Kyyrä reckons. Moreover, domestic music sales amount to a notable share of the market in Finland, and therefore, due the lack of localisation, iTunes has yet to establish itself in Finland as strongly as in other countries.

Pirates of the Baltic Sea

Finns may not be accustomed to iTunes but they certainly have embraced The Pirate Bay, with piracy here more of a concern than in any other Nordic country. “According to the most recent survey, over half a million Finnish households download content illegally,” reveals Antti Kotilainen, the managing director of Finland’s Copyright Information and Anti-Piracy Centre (CIAPC). “90 per cent of such downloads are BitTorrent downloads, which means that files are being shared and downloaded simultaneously.”

The survey, however, also indicates that most Finns recognise the illegal nature of such downloads – and often deem them to be unacceptable. “There is nothing wrong with the attitudes or knowledge of the Finnish community, but unfortunately this is not reflected in people’s behaviour,” Kotilainen sighs.
It appears as if convenience is key to curtailing piracy. “Spotify offers a much-needed and practical alternative to illegal downloading,” Kotilainen remarks. Similarly, amidst constant technological advances that often leave the consumer perplexed, user-friendly bundled services will become increasingly significant.

Dulcet record tones

However, many traditional music enthusiasts and audiophiles quote poor sound quality as one of the key problems with digital distribution. “Indeed, the sound quality of compressed audio files in a cloud service with perhaps millions of songs is, quite obviously, mediocre,” phrases Ari Laine from Hifimesta in Turku.
“It would be horrible if people were to get used to this quality,” a scenario that, Laine believes, could have evolutionary effects. “On the other hand, it’s fantastic that people are listening to and enjoying music again. In that sense, the popularity of streamed music is good news.”
Most of today’s consumers value the usability of services such as Spotify, admits Laine. “Our job is to ensure people enjoy music at the best possible sound quality. Even the quality of streamed music can be enhanced by equipment tweaks,” he hints.

“However, we also acknowledge the superior sound quality of records – as well as the feeling and emotion that they epitomise and convey. To me, personally, the cover art and lyrics are an integral part of an album. If you take that away, you also take away part of the feeling. A record simply fits the ear, perfectly.”

Rites of past?

Indeed, the change in distribution also influences the way we consume and listen to music. In future, what will happen to the feeling of anticipation when you lower the needle arm for the first time while fondling the 31.5 x 31.5-centimetre cardboard sleeve? What about the excitement of browsing through used records? Is it easier to dismiss new music when the album cover does not come back to haunt you on your CD or record shelf? Will first impressions, consequently, rule, and how will that determine popular music?

With customisable playlists a reality, how often do we bother to listen to an entire album, and will this behaviour challenge the whole concept of the album? The interaction between bands and fans is becoming more immediate. How will this affect the role of the label?

Perhaps most importantly, however, virtually the whole world’s music is currently at the fingertips of the consumer. So, discover responsibly, and enjoy.

Aleksi Teivainen