Page last updated at 12:09 GMT, Tuesday, 14 July 2009 13:09 UK

I needed music 'cos I had none

Record stacks at the I&A
The music industry has always focused on selling a physical product

Young people don't want to break the law, says Bill Thompson

The latest report on young people's online music-finding habits from consumer research company The Leading Question has attracted a fair amount of coverage for its headline finding that UK teenagers use of file sharing services has dropped by a third.

The Speakerbox survey polled 1000 young people, so it's a reasonable survey - although of course there's a margin of error in any survey and a significant likelihood that the interpretation of the results will be driven by the predispositions of those reading them, demonstrating yet again what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn calls "theory-dependent observation".

Music industry pollsters will inevitably look for a silver lining in the cloud of consumer behaviour, and a focus on the growth of legal services is to be expected.

But even with that caveat in mind, there has clearly been a shift in behaviour as more young people find licensed ways to listen to the music they want, watching YouTube videos, streaming songs through MySpace and Spotify, and generally using legal avenues to find and enjoy the music of new bands like Florence and the Machine.

Rigorous statistics

Not having access to the full Speakerbox report, as I'm writing this while on holiday in Norfolk, I carried out my own unrepresentative survey of three 16-year-old boys who happened to be sitting on a nearby sofa playing Soulcalibur IV.

I can exclusively reveal that 67% of teenagers use Spotify but that a whopping 100% still download material illegally if that's the only way they can get it, and that ripping the soundtrack from YouTube videos to put onto your phone or MP3 player is growing in popularity, with 67% of 16-year-olds having taken up the practice in the last six months.

Bill Thompson
I turned to the file sharing networks because the music I wanted to listen to was either completely unavailable or so locked up with restrictive terms as to be effectively inaccessible
Bill Thompson

These findings fit rather well with more statistically reliable surveys in that they show a continuing desire for music among young people, despite the obvious interests and attractions of gaming and other activities. They also show that teenagers are aware of and able to take advantage of legal services when they are available.

This should not surprise us, since the only reason that we all started to use file sharing and other unlicensed ways of getting music was because the services that the record companies provided were unwieldy, expensive, limited and intrusive. They were riddled with absurd and inconvenient copy protection measures like the software that Sony-BMG put on music CDs in 2005, which secretly installed itself on users' computers and could not be uninstalled automatically.

In common with millions of others, I turned to the file sharing networks because the music I wanted to listen to was either completely unavailable or so locked up with restrictive terms as to be effectively inaccessible. And I indulged heavily in other behaviour the record industry body BPI wishes to remain illegal by buying CDs and ripping them onto my computer so I could load them onto my iPod.

Of course I've also spent thousands of pounds on vinyl, CDs and downloads over the years, and will probably continue to do so as my love of music is undiminished with age. I really enjoyed hearing Vampire Weekend at the recent Blur concert at Hyde Park, and can't wait to see The Editors play at the Latitude Festival next week.

Role of tape

The network revolution poses the most significant challenge the record industry has faced since the phonograph was invented, and it has been shown wanting in almost every respect.

Last month Geoff Taylor, chief executive of BPI, wrote a column for the BBC News website in which he admitted that the industry had made a mistake ten years ago when they sued the Napster file-sharing service out of existence, but that was just one error among many.

I remember speaking at a record industry conference in 1994 and telling the assembled executives that the day of the CD was over and that they should prepare for digital distribution. They didn't take me seriously, perhaps believing that there was no way the internet of the time could ever be used to deliver music.

Dot Cotton and an mp3 player
Even mp3 players may not survive the transition to all- online music
Five years later Napster showed them how it could be done and they shut it down. Two years after that, in 2001, Apple opened the iTunes Music Store and showed them how to do it legally and profitably, but they still failed to see the real potential and insisted on copy controls and other restrictions.

And only now, 15 years after the web began to transform the world, are the senior executives for the big record labels acting as if they really appreciate just how deep the change in consumer behaviour, brought about by the affordances of these new technologies, is going to be.

Unfortunately it might be too late. Behind the shift to licensed music services there is another change that should give the music industry pause: young people seem happy to stream their music, relying on access to the network to ensure they can get the songs they want, when they want it. While my generation was stuck on owning music on vinyl or CD, today's young listeners seem not even to feel the pressure to have a local copy of the file.

It took the record companies fifteen years to realise that their business wasn't shifting physical units of singles or albums to retailers. They won't have nearly that long to adapt to the new world in which the money comes not from selling files but from simply making music available for anyone to listen to, anywhere and on any device.

I certainly don't rate their chances of getting it right in time.


Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.



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