Page last updated at 07:46 GMT, Thursday, 13 August 2009 08:46 UK

Downloading is not enough

Glastonbury crowd (PA)

Young people's attitudes to music may be too complicated and fast-changing to measure, says Bill Thompson

Peer-to-peer (p2p) download services are still popular with music-loving kids, it seems. The second annual survey of young people's music consumption by pressure group UK Music found among 1,808 respondents aged 18 to 24 that three-fifths of them used p2p services, and four-fifths of those did so at least once a week.

This is almost the same as last year's result, and would seem to indicate that the efforts by the music industry to offer a range of licensed alternatives to Limewire and other p2p services have failed to have any real impact.

The survey was carried out by academic researchers in the Music and Entertainment Industry Management research group at the University of Hertfordshire, and the picture it presents is a complex one that will surely give the music industry many sleepless nights.

Mixed messages

Feargal Sharkey, the former pop star who now heads the group, hinted at the possibility of failure in his introduction to the survey results, where he notes that "the shape of our entire business will continue to evolve".

"However, we will achieve nothing if we do not work with music fans, and young music fans in particular," he continued. "They are hugely demanding in their needs, but collectively we must rise to that challenge."

But even if they want to rise to the challenge, it's not clear that the survey tells them what do to next. Kids, it seems, like unlicensed services because they are free. But the report also acknowledges their usefulness in finding more obscure music and letting them listen to a band before they buy, so closing them down may actually make it harder for new artists to break through.

Bill Thompson
The survey offers no coherent picture of the state of young people's consumption of and attitude to music
Bill Thompson

They are willing to abandon p2p in favour of licensed services that they have to pay for, but they wouldn't pay for a streaming service like Spotify. They apparently want to own their music, or rather they want to have the music files on their hard drives rather than rely on streaming.

They happily spend as much money on live concerts as on recorded music, and over half would not object to a levy on copying music from one device to another.

Overall the picture seems full of contradictions, perhaps reflecting a wide range of attitudes among young people themselves.

The unwillingness to use streaming services is interesting, especially since I've seen every one of my son's friends sign up to Spotify recently. While is is possible that kids really do value "ownership" of music, I suspect it has more to do with the limitations of their online lives.

Here today

Young people are less likely to have fast, reliable net connections at home, or laptops to carry around from place to place, or they probably value the ability to transfer a track from computer to MP3 player to USB stick to mobile phone.

Another aspect may relate to the music industry's own record when it comes to online services. It might be that young people have no faith that the streaming services are going to stay around since they operate at the discretion of the record labels, which have clamped down on many services that are popular with young music fans in the past.

Spotify has already had to remove a large number of tracks from its catalogue because rights to use them were removed, and internet radio firms have lurched from crisis to crisis because the record companies have demanded such large license fees from even the smallest of them.

Evidence to support this view comes from elsewhere in the report, in responses to the questions about CDs. The average size of CD collections was 70 (for 14-17 year olds) and 98 (for 18-24 year olds), and a massive 77% of respondents said that they would still buy original albums even if they subscribed to a music download service.

CD drive and Napster homepage (AP)
There is still some push toward "owning" online music

The reasons for wanting CDs include a desire to have sleeve notes, the sound quality and the desire to own a physical object. But 44% of respondents said that one reason for wanting a CD was that it "cannot be deleted", an indication that young people have taken note of the problems that have occurred in the past when access to rights-managed music files has been withdrawn because services have been shut down.

Overall, the survey offers no coherent picture of the state of young people's consumption of and attitude to music, perhaps because things are changing so fast and young people are so quick to adapt to new technological realities that there simply is no single coherent model that will explain it all.

But it is also necessary to be cautious with the data and its interpretation. The problem with a survey commissioned by a group with a significant interest in the outcome is that no matter how independent and objective the organisation that actually does the polling is, the questions asked may subtly shape the responses.

For example, one of the "key findings" that UK Music draws out in its press release on the survey is that "music remains the most valued form of entertainment". Indeed, this is seen as so important that it tops the list of talking points, above the finding that three-fifths of young people download music from p2p services.

This is a remarkable finding in the age of the PS3, the Wii and the Xbox.

Except that the question that was actually asked was "what entertainment would you miss most on a desert island?"and the three options offered were mobile phone, internet and music - they weren't asked about videogames, and so could not rank them.

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

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