According to the Wall Street Journal, Apple’s iTunes digital music download store will report a decline in sales of between 13 and 14 percent in 2014. What has been the 800-pound gorilla in the music distribution business is slowing losing out to streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. The central question in this latest trend is whether enjoying music requires “owning” the music. If a single album download from iTunes costs around $10 and you can get access to virtually any song you want for $10 per month, why would anyone opt for digital downloads? Tim Cook and the managers of the music side of Apple’s business must certainly be pondering the same question. After all they provided an opportunity for their own iTunes customers to listen to music for free with the introduction of iTunes Radio last year.
The decline in download sales started in 2013 with the gaining popularity of streaming music services. With Tidal and Deezer on their way, the idea of music ownership is under increased pressure…except among audiophiles and those of us who appreciate having the music that we want in the quality that we want it. I’m going to sign up for a Tidal account (one of their representatives reached out to me offering a free account). If it truly does deliver lossless CD spec audio of millions of tunes, doesn’t drop out like satellite radio, and is easy to use, then their model will only up the ante for Apple and Ian Rogers, the executive that helped develop Beats Music. Word has it that he’s now been put in charge of iTunes Radio.
In a perfect world, owning music shouldn’t be that important. If you’re a collector of rare albums on vinyl, then maybe having the 12″ cardboard sleeve, liner notes, and foldout photos is essential. It’s simply not the same to look at images on your SmartPhone, big screen TV, or computer monitor. I get that. But for the rest of us…the music enjoying masses…isn’t the idea to get the music you want and like, easily, and at the best fidelity possible? And we’re getting there faster than you might think.
It is certainly true that music downloads are declining in mass-market digital music stores like iTunes. But they’re not declining at iTrax.com, the world’s first and only exclusively high-resolution audio digital music site (and the first to offer multiple surround music mixes). And they’re not declining at HDtracks and the other high-resolution music sites…and if you include the Pono initiative that is about to roll out, more “high-resolution” (actually CD res) will be downloaded than ever.
But consider this…if Neil Young’s Ponomusic web service does deliver allow us to “rediscover the soul” at CD specs, then Tidal and Deezer will be providing all of the “soul” through $20 per month streams. It hardly seems like a fair fight. One album at Ponomusic will be $15, enough to power your streaming device for 20 days or more. Unfortunately, the Pono player doesn’t allow you to stream music. There are plans for Pono 2.0 to have that capability but the new version won’t be available until the middle of next year. By that time, the marketplace will be sorting itself out…and Pono may be gone.
People are consuming and enjoying more music than ever before…at reasonable quality. The next jump will be to CD spec streams and ultimately to high-resolution, “lossless” streams. Look out a little further and you’ll be able to hear “virtualized” rooms including surround systems in your headphones.
The decline in digital music sales is nothing to worry about…the future will be full of music at better fidelity. But it will be streamed.