Will free music streaming destroy digital downloads?

by , Conversation Editor Technology 22 November 2010
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Music has come a long way – from records to CDs, CDs to MP3s. But that’s all had one resemblance – we’ve had to buy it. Could internet services, like Spotify and Last.fm, destroy the need to pay for the music in your life?

Spotify logo

I still have a cupboard packed with CDs at home (mostly David Bowie albums). They were bought to pop onto my computer and eventually onto my MP3 player (not an iPod I’ll have you know).

iTunes and other digital download services soon took over for many of us as we started purchasing music online, downloading songs straight to our computers.

This wasn’t necessarily a better solution, since MP3 sound quality is still struggling to rival CDs. Reader Mike agreed with this in our Conversation on physical media, saying that MP3 audio is a ‘great loss for hi-fi enthusiasts’.

But that’s by the by, as I’m now going to move onto what I think will rival the popularity of buying digital music – free and subscription internet services. These services, including Spotify and Last.fm, stream music over the internet when you want it and without the need to pay upfront.

Free music paid through advertising

Spotify lets you search for any artist you’d like, with their entire catalogue of tracks arriving in an instant. Well, I say entire catalogue – some albums, artists and music labels still haven’t agreed to be included on the service.

How does it make money? Through advertising – every five or so tracks there’s a not too intrusive sound-based ad. Plus, these can be banished with a subscription fee. I’m actually listening to Spotify as I write this and I can put up with the ads, though I’ll often pull my headphones out if they’re incredibly annoying.

It’s definitely a growing phenomenon. Spotify today revealed that its users rocketed from one to seven million in 2009. And although it may have lost £16.6 million during that year, its popularity is still growing incredibly fast.

Last.fm is a bit different – it suggests tracks you’ll like based on user votes – but the concept is the same. Music is streamed over the web, for free.

Could this be the future of music?

Why the hell not? The sound quality of Spotify’s premium service has been called superior to iTunes downloads by some, so that’s certainly not an issue. These services could even make a significant impact on illegal music pirating. Why illegally download a song when you can get it for free, in better quality, and legally, elsewhere?

Last.fm also features music from unsigned artists, giving them a cut of the advertising revenue, so it can help newbies get on the ladder.

Both services are also a godsend at parties, though you might have to put up with your friends constantly changing the playlist as they search for the tracks they like.

Will these internet music services kill off iTunes? No, but I do think their convenience, immediacy and cheapness will make a pretty hefty dent.

5 comments

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fat sam

I joined Spotify Free a few years ago and love it (and like you, listening to it now (for info, Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More – definitely recommend it for those who haven’t had the pleasure). I think there’s a restriction now on how much you can listen for free per month but it’s still a great way to listen to music. The ads aren’t too annoying, no more than ads (or in some cases, DJs) on radio. Not everything is on there (Oasis, for example, but then I’ve got every Oasis album ever released so not a problem!) but you have to try pretty hard to find anything that isn’t available. The interface is incredibly easy to use as is searching for tracks. Like Wikipedia, you can spend hours wandering around discovering all sorts! Brilliant.

I’m also a member of Last.fm and Finetune. What I like about these services is that whilst you have less control of the tracks you listen to what you can do is find out what sort of other music that people who have similar tastes to you are listening to. I’ve discovered some great music and albums this way in recent years.

The result of this is that I am buying more music now and going to more festivals and concerts than I ever have done in my life, partly because there is so much good music around at the moment but in part because of free services like these. Call me old-fashioned but I still like to have the CD cases on display as I think music, like the clothes you wear, says a lot about you and you can still end up surprising visitors who think they know you. You can’t do that with an MP3 track unless you’re playing it!

That’s a good point – listening to both Last.fm and Spotify does introduce you to music that you might not have listened to before. This in turn can inspire future real-world purchases. So they can be complimentary.

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nursebill123

Have been on spotify for just over a year now,firstly free with adverts,then paid monthly account from my birthday last Xmas,and now the paid less version with poorer sound quality on my new laptop(with the poorer sound system than my old desktop).Fabulous range of music which allows legal payment to artists as well – what’s not to like!Only problem I’ve ever had was in getting friends and family to take free invite codes,because the music was never owned by them.I’ve really widened my listening this past year,and find the archived albums and the biographies a boon as well.I just wish more people would gravitate to one of the paid versions as I did,to lessen the chances of the whole thing folding.

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Alistair

I am not a regular music-online-streamer sort of bloke; but I have been ‘tuning in’ to groovshark.com.
I don’t know how it compares to the others listed, but it is subscription free and has no ads !

That’s a new one for me – it looks pretty good. Nice little options on it and it pays for distribution rights, so it’s also perfectly legal. Nice spot Al.

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