The new digital

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The digitization of music and its convergence with the participatory culture online has led to a total shift in the way we interact with, and consume music in our everyday lives. Due to this evolving convergence of digital music and broad access to relatively inexpensive networked device technology, any one can now create, market, discover, store and playback music via the internet. With a focus on the dissemination of digital music online and the reception of fans and major record labels to a new digital distribution model, this essay will argue that music as a medium was perfectly suited for online distribution, ultimately became a major force for activating participation on the internet and still remains a profitable product in an environment of peer-to-peer music sharing.

Jenkins (2004) says that “Consumers are learning how to use these different media technologies to bring the flow of media more fully under their control and to interact with other users” (Jenkins, 2004). Many years before it was possible to legally download songs and albums online, music was being shared via peer-to-peer technology using compressed digital formats such as mp3 (Leaver, 2010). Consumers interaction with music online exemplified that fans of music had a desire to interact with a digital product online (Dixon, 2007) to overcome the tyranny of digital distance (Griffin, 2011) and take more control over their playlists. Despite this increase in fan interaction with product online, a recording industry enjoying an economic boom due to digital technology and the release of Compact Discs, become more concerned with lawsuits against developers of peer-to-peer technology and downloaders who they saw as pirates and thieves (Kot, 2009). The law found in favor of the established music industry finding that most of the music shared via peer-to-peer technology was done without authorisation (Kot, 2009). What the music labels failed to see was that “Participatory culture is a trend pushed from the consumers desire to be creative and social” (Wikstrom,  (2010).


Barry Sandywell and David Beer noted in Convergence (2005) that “the most obvious effect of digitisation is to transform the processes and practices of music production, post-production, reproduction, storage, and playback” (Beer, Sandywell, 2005). Although the software to compress music files into mp3 was not released until 1994 by Karlheinz Brandenburg ( Denegri-Knott, Tadajewski 2009), the music industry had been using digital technology for the creation and dissemination of music for many years (Beer, Sandywell, 2005). In the late 1970’s analogue-to-digital signal converters where developed that allowed creators the freedom to transform analogue signals into digital data (Beer, Sandywell, 2005).This convergence of analog sound and digital technology allowed creators and producers to develop new sounds and recording techniques to produce music.

Another important convergence of music with digital technology took place  in 1977 and 1978 when Sony and Phillips joined forces to develop the first compact discs that contained digital information in order to reproduce audio content (Kees, 1998). The convergence of the Phillips failed Laservision product, and Sony’s digital audio technology (Kees, 1998) led to the first Compact Disc (CD) being released to the public in 1983 (Kot, 2009). The release of the CD saw profits for the music industry boom for nearly two decades (Kot, 2009).


By 1994 the software to create compressed music files from audio copied to computers via Compact Disc Read Only Memory (CD-ROM) drives was being used on many personal computers (Kees, 1998). Although the technology existed, active participation in the form of sharing, discovering and downloading music online was not prevalent until Shuan Fanning developed Napster using existing peer-to-peer technology to share music with friends online and released it for free in 1999 (Business week, 2000). Peer-to-peer technology popularised by Napster allowed users the ability to share, search and download files from any computer running the same software; In effect sharing the digital music libraries of everyone connected to the network.


Although there were obvious concerns about copyright and intellectual property, fans took up the new technology in in their millions. “For its users, Napster has become another appliance, like a toaster or washing machine. Call it the music appliance: log on, download, play songs. The simplicity of the program is part of its genius” (Greenfeld, Taylor, Thigpen, 2000). While other mediums such as film, television and news media were just realising the potential of an online identity, Napster were in court not only defending their right to cash-in on the most popular internet application of the time (Evangelista, 2002), but in defense of, 55 million users (Kot, 2009) who were “fighting for the right to participate more fully in their culture” (Jenkins, 2004).



The recording industries distrust of new technology was nothing new. “Phonographs were seen as a threats to live music at the turn of the twentieth century: if consumers could get music at home, what incentive would there be to go out and see a show or an opera? Radio was going to kill the phonograph in the 1930’s: of listeners could access music for free over the broadcast airwaves what need would they have to buy records? The introduction of the cassette and home taping was going to undermine the business in the 1980s; Why would you buy an album when you could record your friends copy?” (Kot, 2009). Multiple law suits of copyright violation against Napster and some of its users, did nothing to deter internet users from the practice of downloading music for free online (Baym, 2010). “If old consumers were predictable and stationary, then new consumers are migratory, showing a declining loyalty to networks or even media” (Jenkins, 2004). 


Despite the ongoing existence and use of peer-to-peer technology and unauthourised downloading today, research shows that users of the internet who download music illegally form peer-to-peer services are also purchasing music legally online as part of their consumption habits (Sandulli, Martin-Barbero, 2007). “Media producers are responding to these newly empowered consumers in contradictory ways, sometimes encouraging change, sometimes resisting what they see as renegade behavior (Jenkins, 2004). With both the industry and consumers testing economic models for downloading music online, the industry has used diversification in an era of convergence to compensate for revenue lost to unauthourised downloading. “We expect music publishers will gain an increasing proportion of their revenue from new opportunities, many of which will be linked to mobile phones.” (Van Horn, 2008)


The music industry is also using the convergence happening around them to define their new approach to business in an online environment. “A pre-eminent example of the shifting business model is the growth of commerce around “music access”, with music being bundled with other services or devices. Nokia’s Comes With Music phone and TDC’s PLAY are examples of music access services launched in 2008” (2009).  Other  advantages of digital distribution included include the unlimited shelf space digital dissemination affords over the restricted physically distribution chains (Anderson, 2004)


Although sales of digital music have not reached the big profits from the Compact Disc boom, digital music is a profitable product when distributed in an online model. The industry announced a 12 per cent increase in total profit with  US$4.2 billion in annual sales from digital sales in 2009 (IFPI, 2010), artists are reporting larger audiences at live performances promoted by allowing free acess to music online (Kulash, 2010) (Mansnick, 2010) and in February 2010 the iTunes online music store reported that it has sold its 10th billion track (BBC, 2010). It is then conclusive in an environment where legal music downloading and unauthorized peer-to-peer sharing of music co-exist that “Ultimately, our media future could depend on the kind of uneasy truce that gets brokered between commercial media and collective intelligence.” (Jenkins, 2004).


The music industry has feared and eventually embraced and profited from new technologies to create, produce and disseminate product since the phonograph. Due to a convergence with digital technology predating the popularisation of online distribution, music has been perfectly suited to take advantage of new participatory methods of consuming digital product using the internet. Music became a major force for activating participation online through peer to peer technology and unautherised downloading, but still maintains a profitable economy in an environment where free access to product is the norm.



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