Remember when the size of your music collection was limited by how much free shelf-space your parents could spare on the living bookshelf? Or when getting your mitts on that obscure B-side meant seven Saturdays on the trot down the car-boot sale, pawing through boxes of cassettes in the freezing rain? Now, thanks to smartphones, not to mention all the other dedicated MP3 players out there – that’s all changed. But it’s not the only way digital technology has made us even madder about music.
It all started at “Tom’s Diner”
Everything changed in 1987, when Karlheinz Brandenburg chose Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” as the first song to fine tune his MP3 compression algorithm. The human voice being the hardest sound to compress, Vega’s a cappella version of the song provided the perfect challenge for Brandenburg to test bitrates and further refine his codec. Little did he know that he’d started a music revolution. According to Nielsen SoundScan last year in the US, digital music accounted for 23% of all music purchases, a figure that’s growing year on year. What’s more, an incredible 42% of smartphone owners claim to have a collection of between 2-5,000 songs.
But it’s not just a case of space. No longer do we have to dedicate night after night to finding obscure pirate radio-stations, waiting to hear an exciting new track – these days, services like Spotify and YouTube give us instant gratification just as fast as sites like Twitter and Facebook can throw up friends’ recommendations. But I still love radio, you cry! I don’t want a crowd-sourced tune; I want the DJ’s choice, the expert opinion! Well, fine; digital technology means that you can now listen to radio stations from all over the world on your computer. Mobile apps like TuneIn Radio mean you’re not stuck at your desk, either. And forget your pull-out aerials and your scratchy transistor reception: WiFi and GPS mean you’ll rarely be without crystal-clear sound while you’re out and about.
You might think that with everybody plugged up to their headphones, digital music is alienating us from a more communal experience of music – but in fact, it looks like the opposite is true. Facebook developers claimed last winter that their integrated digital music technologies have meant that users shared their favourite songs with their online friends over 1.5 billion times in just a single 6 week period alone. Talk about word of mouth! And services like Turntable.fm simulate a club-experience for those who love the tunes but don’t fancy the sweat and the bother of the club itself: they let you chat with other music fans whilst a virtual DJ spins the decks.
Digital music technology isn’t all about the consumers, of course; it’s also about the musicians. MySpace may have finally bitten the dust, but it was a brilliant grass-roots way of getting your tunes out to the public. Now services like SoundCloud and Bandamp do the same thing: aspiring musicians can use technology to find an audience before they ever have to brave the stage. First the band uploads their track, and then web-based discovery services like Exfm pull tunes from these sites and showcase them. And with so many people using these apps to listen on the go, everybody wins. Listen! Record! Share! What more could you ask for?