Unlimited Sin: Reflections on Music Downloads


The Rise and Fall of The Humble Music File

I remember the first time I heard about Limewire it genuinely shocked me. What was this weird computer program everyone was talking about…It could give you all the music you ever wanted, completely for free? How was that fair? Having grown up on the tail-end of the CD era (my first ever album was Good Charlotte’s The Young and Hopeless, followed by The Killer’s Hot Fuss) I’d been instilled with a sense that the physical product you bought, and the music contained within it, were linked. So to rip these two apart- and chuck musical tracks onto the internet for free- just seemed wrong. Almost disrespectful.

This was back when I was still in High School, around 2007 or so. And since then we’ve witnessed the steady rise, and cooling down, of the ‘music download’. After 20 years of being at the heart of the musical zeitgeist, it looks like the concept is fizzling out. Apple recently announced that its flagship platform for music downloads, iTunes, is to be broken up. The Music Industry’s IFPI 2019 Report confirms this trajectory. Musical downloads start tracking in 2004 at $400 Million in revenue, rising to its peak of $4.4 Billion in 2014, before shrinking to $2.3 Billion in 2018. By contrast, Streaming has ballooned from $100 Million in 2005 to a gargantuan $8.9 Billion in 2018. Streaming now makes up almost half the music industry’s revenue, nearly equalling physical sales, digital downloads and performance rights combined.

Music Industry Revenue Table DownloadsTable & Data Source: IFPI Report 2019

While the IFPI only tracks legal downloads, if these trends continue digital downloads will be increasingly squeezed out- while streaming continues to dominate as the most popular method of music consumption.

But while downloads may be fading - they inarguably changed the way we think about music- possibly forever.

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The People vs Lars Ulrich

The story of popular music downloads starts with something decidedly guerrilla. Napster. Back in 1999, when the service launched, the idea of using the internet to fileshare was still in its infancy. Part of the reason was the clunky dial-up internet most users had access to, another was the fact that the idea simply hadn’t entered public consciousness yet. 1999 was CD Country- with bands able to shift millions upon millions of units- ironclad by the MTV Industrial Complex.

Napster demolished this paradigm incredibly quickly: giving users a simple, easy to use and (most importantly) free system to download as many songs as they wanted. The ballad of Napster, climaxing in Lars Ulrich standing outside a Californian court, waving a page of usernames he intended to sue, is the stuff of legend. But while the program lived and died in a relatively short period of time- shutting down in 2001, it set the stage both for the culture of mass downloading, and the music industry’s response to it.

Steve Jobs, a figure often able to see the wave before it hit the beach, launched iTunes in 2003, as a direct riposte to this challenge. Apple already dominated with their iPod MP3 player- and now iTunes would complete the loop, allowing Apple to both play, and provide, your music. During the iTunes launch event Jobs positioned himself as directly in combat. Starting his speech by waxing on the “phenomenon called Napster,” and admitting that despite the site being defunct, “it demonstrated that the internet was made for music delivery.” Jobs naturally condemns illegal downloads as “stealing”, but his candidness and the almost respectful, impressed tone he takes towards the internet upstarts is notable. He wants iTunes to defeat the idea of Napster and Kazaa in direct, honourable combat.

You couldn’t convince a generation of kids to buy your album for that one hit single anymore. So iTunes moved with the times. Competing on more consistent technology, guaranteed quality, song previews, album cover art and legitimacy. Jobs, being Jobs, also brings up the idea of Karma as yet another reason to support legitimate releases.

“I cannot overemphasize that because of the previews, browsing, etc. you fall in love with music again—and you find the hits you’ve heard before and the gems you’ve never heard before—and it’s really wonderful.  It’s so cool.”

Steve Jobs – April 23rd 2003

While the era of torrents continued with gusto, the industry’s attempts at creating an alternative system met with decent success. iTunes became the banner pilot for legal downloads. Purchases grew and the iTunes store became part of the industry landscape. The front page was the place to be seen for up-and-coming artists. Whose on top? Whose rising up?

iTunes was also able to offer suggestions to the user for new music, based on the media they previously purchased. While clunky, it held enough algorithmic input to be able to imitate a record store clerk- inviting us to try new, or slightly different, music. To be fair, as impersonal as it sounds, I did find quite a number of bands I now love through the iTunes system. And while the 'suggested' music algorithm has now been perfected by the likes of YouTube, there's room to respect iTunes' early trailblazing.

All in all, iTunes was a solid response, to a gargantuan problem. 

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Yet, downloads were always lacking something. The sense that you were basically paying for nothing lingered. With a CD or vinyl, you got a physical object. With Napster or Limewire you paid nothing and got a file (almost nothing). But legal downloads required a kind of pious respect for the artist to justify themselves. As Jobs remarked in his presentation, there’s an element of consciously playing by the rules involved. Yes, you can go and listen to the song you want on a grotty streaming site, okay maybe you can get it off Limewire, but think twice, and choose to play by the rules.

When viewed alongside the current popularity of streaming, music downloads start to look like a stopgap. I grew up with CDs, I still have many from my teenage years, but today's teenagers have grown up entirely in the era of detached files. It's all they've ever known. SoundCloud, YouTube, Last.fm. The jump from physical mediums to cloud-based freeform music starts to look like the real movement of consequence. That's the historic, technological leap from the carriage to the car. Downloads being a kind of methadone to help nervous consumers, and a worried industry, manage the transition.

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Modern Shakes

During the iTunes launch event Jobs derisively mentions a type of legal music service which has been lost to history now. One that, at the time, he was attempting to better with iTunes. In response to the Napster menace, PressPlay was founded jointly by Universal Music and Sony Music in 2001. It was a kind of proto-streaming service. For $15 a month PressPlay offered 500 audio streams, 50 song downloads and 10 songs burnt to CD. Rhapsody was a similar, independent service, which also started in 2001. (Rhapsody has now, incredibly weirdly, purchased the rebooted Napster- and has decided to start wearing its skin- discarding the Rhapsody name entirely.)

The rise of streaming services like Spotify, YouTube Red and Tidal almost look like a return to that early “music as a subscription service” idea. Except now, with fast free-flowing internet, the proliferation of smartphones, and the instant expectation of gratification- the industry has made it work.

The difference now is that the convenience offered by legal streaming sites is almost (almost) unbeatable. Sure it's easy to download an album off BitTorrent, but why bother when I can just load it up on YouTube. I want to listen to music on my phone while I'm out, and have the flexibility to change my taste at a moments notice. I also want to spread my playlists across my Android, MacBook, Windows desktop, Firefox browser and BMW car, well Spotify lets me do that instantly.

Now you don't even need to download the track you wanted to listen to. You don't even have to wait 3 seconds for the bits to finish moving, and then deal with the file location afterwards. Press play and go. It's already fast now, and with 5G on the horizon streaming speeds will only get faster. Just surf through, riding the internet.

Streaming also represents a counterattack by the record industry. Spotify is completely legal and above board entity. You either pay for it through a subscription or by listening to periodic adverts. Spotify is well known for paying artists a pittance per download, but from the industry perspective, this is at least a tangible revenue stream. YouTube, while awash with ad-hoc user uploads, also wields an aggressive Content ID system for taking down copyrighted material. The ultimate goal being to funnel users onto legitimate industry channels, where they can see adverts, sponsorships and merch. While these systems are imprecise and are unlikely to be able to plug the hole fully- they do represent a massive increase in industry control. It was hard for record companies to take files off Napster- or off a downloader’s computer. They can easily take your rip of Midtown’s first album off YouTube.

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In the midst of this, it would be unfair not to mention some groups who still stalwartly stand by downloads: music collectors and audiophiles. Vaporwave especially trends towards fans who love to collect, categorise and organise sounds. The appeal of downloading, that you can create your own personal library of music, is still important to many hardcore fans. Arguably it’s one of the trends that keeps niche subgenres alive. With a cadre of committed collectors making sure all the important releases are catalogued for posterity. Bandcamp has done yeoman’s work in fostering a cottage industry of music creators- with paid downloads being an important part of rewarding artists for their work. Downloads may even prove to be necessary to keep underappreciated releases alive for future generations. Streaming services can falter, shut down, or delete libraries. An issue I’ve written about before in this column.

Audiophiles too appreciate the control downloads offer- allowing access to a plethora of specific (often very big) file types. If you’re listening through a $15,000 audio setup, Spotify streaming through 3G internet probably won’t cut it.

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Despite streaming's dominance, it’s unlikely downloads will ever truly disappear. Much like Vinyl’s recent revival- if there’s demand for a type of medium, the market can provide for it. I like to imagine that one day there'll be a nostalgic revival for music downloads. For sure, it's harder to imagine than that of Vinyl or CDs- simply because there's no physical object to attach the emotion too. But maybe, as a reaction to the endless buffet of music the internet offers, fans might start to limit themselves to a certain number of music downloads a week. Numerical restrictions, hermetically sealing themselves off from choice. Downloading something and committing to it. Maybe slotting downloads into the rest of their lo-fi setup. Listen to vinyl at home and MP3s on their phone. Stranger things have happened. And if the internet is good at something other than music delivery, it's creating surprises.

Sam L. Barker is a freelance writer and marketer living in Cambridge, UK. He writes about music, technology and memory. Follow him on Twitter and read the Far Side Virtual archive. 

Artwork by Pixabay

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