Technology is a boon and bane for music in digital era. Here’s why. – The San Diego Union-Tribune
For better and worse, music is here, there and virtually everywhere.
Thanks to the digital revolution and countless new apps, there has never before been more music available, via more platforms, to more people. The resulting explosion of options has irrevocably changed the way we make, access, digest and even think about music.
Those options range from Mp3 players, iPods, iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and other downloading and streaming formats to the growing use of artificial intelligence, virtual reality imagery and so many music-related apps it almost requires another app just to keep track of them all.
Thatâs the good news and the bad news. Itâs a conundrum that only seems to accelerate as each new technological breakthrough makes accessing music more convenient â and, as often as not, more problematic.
Some bands and solo artists now plan their tours using crowdfunding strategies, the better to determine what cities will have the greatest ticket-demand from concertgoers. That may be bad news if you reside in a secondary market.
Where once a recording contract was virtually the only way a new artist could get their foot in the door to reach potential fans, there are now other viable options to achieve stardom.
For Justin Bieber and a good number more, it was YouTube. For Shawn Mendes, it was Vine. And for bump-and-grind vocalist Niykee Heaton, who performed here last fall at Observatory North Park, it was Instagram.
Meanwhile, marketing-savvy acts as varied as Kelly Clarkson, Billy Joel, the Rolling Stones and Coldplay have invited fans to vote on social media for the songs they want to hear performed in concert.
Coldplayâs concerts â including, presumably, the English bandâs upcoming Oct. 8 San Diego show at Qualcomm Stadium â use technology to provide enhanced visual appeal. Audience members can wear Xylobands around their wrists equipped with red, yellow and blue LEDs. The lights in the bands are synchronized to a radio transmitter so that they can be manipulated in time with the music Coldplay is performing.
Coldplay isnât alone. Taylor Swift employed similar LED wristbands when she performed at Petco Park in 2015. Then again, given how many fans held their illuminated cell phones aloft, the wristbands almost seemed like an afterthought.
Thanks to the internet, vast amounts of music are available online â in many instances for free â making it more ubiquitous and easy to acquire than ever.
But this ubiquity of access has also devalued music, perhaps irreparably. Yes, free music is a boon to those at the receiving end. But itâs a bane to those who create, perform and rely on music for their livelihoods. And it makes music less than a commodity to those who donât pay a cent for it.
The pro argument is that free digital music levels the playing field and puts artists in charge of their work and their destiny, which is a good thing. The con argument is that many traditional revenue streams for musicians have been greatly diminished or have vanished altogether.
Here are just a few key examples of how this good-bad conundrum has manifested itself.
Good: Technological breakthroughs have made music available to almost anyone with access to a computer or a smart phone, enabling them to listen anywhere, any time.
Bad: The audio level compression endemic to most digital music files not only worsens the sonic quality, it can eliminate a good chunk of the musical content altogether. In the place of that missing content comes noise, distortion and a harshness of sound, especially given the trend of cranking up the volume and then compressing the results. Consequently, the dynamic range of the music suffers significantly.
Or, as Tom Scholz â the leader of veteran rock band Boston â recently lamented to an interviewer: âWhen I was in school, college kids were at the forefront of super high-quality sound. They were buying kits and building really great equipment. Everyone was obsessed with really excellent audio quality. Within the last 10 years, college kids embraced the most hideous-sounding means of audio distribution, MP3 files. I wish Iâd never heard the term. Combined with the internet, I think it actually damaged peopleâs ability to enjoy music.â
Good: Thanks to ear-buds and âstate-of-the-artâ headphones people, can listen to music whenever they like, without blasting anyone seated or standing next to them.
Bad: Too often, the current âstate-of-the-artâ leaves much to be desired, which in turn exacerbates the audio compression dilemma. More alarming, listening to music for only 75 minutes a day on an Mp3 player at full volume â which is 120 decibels, the same as at many concerts â can lead to permanent hearing damage.
In 2015, the World Health Organization warned that 1.1 billion young people were at risk because of personal audio devices. A 2010 U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention report concluded at least 16 percent of Americans between the ages of 12 and 19 had suffered significant hearing loss.
Good: Storing music on a playlist in a cloud â through Spotify, Tidal or other on-demand music subscription streaming services â helps the environment because you donât have to buy CDs or vinyl albums. It also makes your home much less cluttered.
Bad: According to Nielsen Soundscan, there were 209 billion on-demand music streams in the first half of 2016 alone. Moreover, U.S. recorded music sales rose 11.4 percent in 2016, bringing in revenue of $7.65 billion, a jump from $6.87 million in 2015. But that is barely half of the $14.6 billion in recorded music revenues seen in 1999, which was the industryâs most profitable year ever (thanks to indefensibly inflated CD prices) â and the dawn before the digital revolution kicked in.
Digital album sales plummeted by 21.3 percent in 2016, falling from 109.3 million units in 2015 to 86 million units last year. Concurrently, sales of individually downloaded songs dropped by 24.1 percent in 2016.
Yet, even as streaming surges, the copyright royalties that performers and songwriters receive for the streaming of their music is minuscule. As of 2015, Spotifyâs average payout was between $0.006 and $0.0084 “per stream” to the rights holders of a song. YouTube and Pandora paid even less.