The Inventor, the Mogul, and the Thief . . . and the Music Library. Can music really get free?

The news that at the end of 2016 sales of vinyl records had reached a 25-year high is, on the face of it, surprising.  It is not too long since we were told that all physical formats, including CDs, were dinosaurs and that in the era of downloads and streaming, they would disappear.  It hardly needed to be mentioned that vinyl’s day was done.

So what are we to make of the end of year figures from the UK?:

Year Vinyl Sales Download Sales
2015 £1.2 bn £4.4 bn
2016 £2.4 bn £2.1 bn

In fact vinyl sales have been increasing for eight consecutive years.

All this talk about downloads and the disappearance of physical formats has obvious implications for a public music lending library, such as the Rory Gallagher Music Library [RGML] on the Grand Parade, Cork.  How could the RGML continue to collect and make available music for its patrons, if the major companies just stopped producing?  If there was no economic basis for the popular music business, could there be a future for a music lending library?

Stephen Witt’s 2015 book How music got free: the Inventor, the Mogul, and the Thief is a compelling account of how the technology to enable virtual or digital music developed, and of how it became increasingly difficult to charge for it.  Jonathan Taplin’s newly published Move fast and break things is equally compelling but from a very different angle.

Witt book

The story begins with a German inventor called Karlheinz Brandenburg.  An engineer by profession, he never expected or intended that illegal downloading would evolve from the creation of the mp3 which he had developed in the early 1990s – the ‘mp’ stands for Moving Pictures Experts Group.  Mp3 technology is reliant on our less than perfect hearing for its success – it compresses sound to about 70 – 75% of the quality of a CD, but our ears seem happy to accept it.  The first ever mention of mp3 software, and what it was about to unleash, was in May 1997, in a report on file sharing among students in Stanford University.  A student put 110 music files on his personal web server, and in no time more than 2,000 people each day were visiting, representing more than 80% of the University’s outgoing traffic.

When legislators and moral guardians – usually self-appointed – sought to protect teenagers from what record companies wanted to sell them, the mighty dollar almost always had the muscle to win out.  Ironically, but unsurprisingly, when a later generation of teenagers started to share files, the legislators were slow to listen to the complaints of these record companies.

The story of how music got free pits huge companies against small fry.  There are now only three major record companies – the so-called ‘Big Three’ of Warner, Universal and Sony – who between them control a shocking 80% of the record industry.  Huge companies also control technology development.  As the music business struggled with what illegal downloading was doing to their profits, the ingenuity of US big business seemed to offer a way out: Steve Jobs of Apple, who strongly disapproved of file-sharing, developed iTunes “whose calm white interface and slick expensive iconography promised to cleanse the world of sin” to quote Witt.

As for the small fry, those who tried to make music free have included a very disparate bunch: Brandenburg who did not foresee where his invention would lead; employees of CD-production plants and distributors who were happy to make a few bucks through bootlegging; idealist file-sharers; hackers doing it because they could; those who saw an opportunity to make a few bucks; and even the Pirate Party who got elected to some Northern European parliaments and even the European Parliament on an anti-copyright platform.

For music libraries, and music librarians, the experience of community-oriented file sharing is interesting, for example the so-called Oink Pink Palace.  Created by a self-effacing Englishman named Alan Ellis, the file-sharing service grew incredibly quickly, reaching 100,000 ‘members’ by 2006. According to Witt, Ellis “mandated civility of discourse . . . He seemed at times to promote an almost utopian vision, except his utopia actually worked.  The result was illegal, of course but it was also something of great value”.

He did not charge; it was done apparently for the love of the music and the principle of sharing. Not only did the record companies not get their share, neither did the artists.  The record industry could hardly let this continue, so he was tracked down, arrested and prosecuted.  Whatever one might think about the huge recorded music industry going after a small fry like Ellis, one could legitimately ask Ellis and his co-sharers “how is a musician supposed to earn a living, if everyone is downloading for free?”

Jonathan Taplin looks at this issue – how to ensure fair payment for digital music – from a very different angle, that of the musician and artist.  Taplin, still active at 70, started out as a young man working as Bob Dylan and The Band’s tour manager, and then became a movie director.

Levon Helm was the drummer in The Band. For years after the group stopped touring and recording he would make about US $100,000 a year on royalties from their records.   “He made a living,” says Taplin. “Then Napster hit in 2000 and he got throat cancer the same year and it made his life a living hell.”

taplin book

Taplin’s first aim in the book was to understand how Helm and people like him, creators of the music which attracts fans in the first place, lost out so much, while the big companies that were exploiting that music made billions.  Taplin “thought of it as a culture war”; “but once I came to look into it I realised that it was really an economic war.”  Taplin’s book makes a passionate case for the rights of the creators, and deserves the widest readership.

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So, if we are facing an increasingly digital world, yet seeing increased sales of vinyl, what does this seemingly contradictory picture mean for the Rory Gallagher Music Library and public facilities like it?  What is the future, for music creation, record production, music libraries, and the consumption of music product?  Is it best summed up in that phrase from the Hollywood mogul William Goldman “no one knows anything”?

One thing for sure, not for a moment can the RGML sit on its laurels.  Its future, like the future of public libraries generally, depends on trying to figure out what is around the corner, and being clear on what has to be done so that we can stick to our principles.

It is impossible to be absolutely certain what form the Rory Gallagher Music Library will take in 10 or 20 years time, because of the changing nature of recorded music and how the public access it.  Flexibility will thus be key for this section of the Library.  What can be said is that space will always be required for:

  • continually growing music collections in all genres and in all relevant formats: CDs. Vinyl, DVDs, scores, books;
  • the informational and reference role of the Rory Gallagher Music Library for all aspects of musical culture in the city, and its support for the music curriculum.

Space will be required for classes in music appreciation and instrument tuition, and rehearsal, and a regular calendar of live music performances and gramophone recitals.

Space will also be required for enhanced permanent display of music heritage items, e.g. Rory Gallagher, Aloys Fleischmann, Cork Choral Festival, and material relating to Cork musicians, composers, bands, etc.

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Witt fesses up that a few years back he sold his collection of more than 100,000 mp3 files and bought a subscription to Spotify.  “What I’d thought of as my personal archive was just an agglomeration of slowly demagnetizing junk”.  The book ends with his description of how he took the collection to be destroyed.  Music librarians cannot help but wonder if that is what is in store for all physical collections of recorded music, if everything will be virtual, held on a cloud, in the future?

Liam Ronayne
Liam Ronayne Cork City Librarian

Against the Stream : The Resurgence of Vinyl

CD shops have all but disappeared, Apple’s iPod Classic has been assigned to the scrap heap and the uber-cool are discussing their latest vinyl purchases in espresso bars everywhere.

So, just what is going on in the world of music?

Firstly, it looks like vinyl is back and it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Vinyl presses, some of which haven’t seen the light of day since the 1980s are being dragged out of warehouses everywhere in an effort to meet the rising demand. Nielsen Soundscan reports that 9.2 million vinyl albums were sold in 2014. That’s the highest number in 20 years and a significant increase on the 6.06 million units that were sold in 2013. Vinyl sales have, in fact, increased by over 220 per cent since the beginning of the decade. What’s also significant, as reported by http://www.digitaltrends.com, is that vinyl buyers are largely music fans under 35 years of age, which seems to indicate a bright future for the medium.

Copyright The Nielsen Company 2015
Copyright The Nielsen Company 2015

Meanwhile, CD sales have seen a steady decline. According to Nielsen Soundscan, CD sales dropped by 15 per cent last year and have been nosediving steadily since 2004. What may surprise some people, however, is that digital download sales are also seeing a downturn, leading Apple to ditch the 80 GB capacity iPod Classic in favour of the much smaller, multi-use iPod touch.

screen-shot-2015-03-03-at-12-06-10-pm
Copyright The Nielsen Company 2015

Spotify seems to be the leading player in a relatively new medium of music consumption which is definitely on the rise: web streaming. As of January 2015, Spotify had 15 million paying subscribers and a total of 60 million active users. Why bother paying for digital downloads that will only clog your phone’s hard drive, when you can listen to music any time you like for free on Spotify? Well, that’s the question isn’t it?

What does this all tell us? Is the CD going the way of the dodo and taking with it its baby brother, the MP3? Is the resurgence of vinyl to be attributed to a change in attitude on behalf of music fans whereby they are no longer willing to sacrifice quality for convenience?

Or is it a case of fashion rather than passion?

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

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