The fall of music makes us vulnerable

Posted on: 06 January 2011 by Alexander Hay

Perhaps the days of record stores like HMV is over, but what dangers await us in the digital age?

Vinyl is old hat, but are we prepared for the perils of the digital age?

Music retailer HMV has not had a very good Christmas. Its sales over the Yuletide period were disappointing and as a result, it announced yesterday that it is to close 60 of its branches across the country. In the wake of Zavvi's collapse and EMI, it seems the days of music being something you buy in a shop as opposed to download or order over the web may be over.

It is self-inflicted too, though. HMV's real problem is that it simply does not or cannot try to compete with its competitors. A CD at HMV's Oxford Street flagship store, for example, costs £14.99-£15.99. On Amazon.co.uk it can be bought for as little as £4.49. HMV seems hell-bent on not competing with cheaper, more ruthless competitors.

Others see a non-physical future for music. This year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, still taking place at the time of writing, has no end of announcements for devices and services delivering digital music without middlemen like HMV. Why go shopping when you can use your Android, Windows or iPhone to just download it instead? Why buy CDs published by Sony Music when Song Electronics is showcasing Qriocity, which lets you listen to music via 'The Cloud'? 

This, however, has problems of its own. To begin with, how does one actually 'own' a stream of data? The lack of physicality in a media file means your rights as an owner are abstract. This is, of course, not a problem at present, but if downloads become the predominant source of information or media and are then restricted by governments or unscrupulous companies, then the issue of ownership is moot. You can always claim ownership over something physical but possession of raw data will always be open to interpretation.

Buying, or just downloading via the Web also means exposing yourself to the Web's worst habits. For example, the deep sense of entitlement many web users cultivate, translating into a blinkered belief that everything should be free. This 'something for nothing' mentality ignores the sad fact that someone, somewhere does have to pay for it, and if there is no money coming in, things don't get made.

The self-imposed ghettoisation of the Web is another problem. Whereas one of the joys of a record shop is finding things at random that you weren't looking for originally, and following where that leads you, on the Web you can live in self-imposed isolation, only ever engaging in what you already know, with little or no chance of trying anything different. It is a recipe for stagnation, and a crushing lack of imagination.

If the future of music and other media really is online only, then there are other risks too. The children of today's downloaders may, ironically, find themselves forced to pay extortionate prices to download media as all competition has been crushed and those in charge of the supply can charge whatever they want. In any case, the Web is not an infinite source of information so much as an infinite empty space filled only with whatever people choose to put in it. 

And for all the claims that the web makes it easier for musicians to make money from their work, the truth is that it takes a considerable amount of legal downloads to afford a half-decent standard of living for the musos. They would, perversely, make more money pressing their own CDs and selling them direct to their fan-base. 

Our infatuated embrace of new technology brings a gamut of other problems. It is very easy to drop a music player or e-book reader down the toilet, for example. While damage to a portable device may be annoying and costly, other tech based disasters – such as an electromagnetic pulse – threatens our entire civilization. All that would be needed would be a terrorist group or unusual solar activity to generate an EMP and an entire city's infrastructure, all the cars, all the electricity and everything you rely on would be burned out by a simple, though powerful, surge in voltage. Oh, and you would also lose all your music, too. 

There is also the small matter of format redundancy. Data, films, sound files and important information can be lost simply by being on a data cassette or compatible with only one kind of computer that has since become obsolete. Regardless, if there were a catastrophe that returned us to the Dark Ages in one afternoon, rebuilding would be by necessity both analogue and physical, rather than digital and ephemeral.

Progress is therefore a good thing, but in our pursuit of it, we should be careful not to lose other good things in the process. HMV's woes may herald far worse than the loss of a few record stores.

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Alexander Hay

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