It’s a lovely evening and a soft summer breeze is flowing through the open spaces of a quaint little house. The last rays of the sun have withdrawn themselves from the grilled window, though, leaving behind their essence in the room. On the table is an old fashioned telephone that seldom rings and by it is a small radio playing. An old man sits on his chair, with a cup of tea in his hand as the vocals of “Kabhi Kabhi Mere Dil Mein Khayal Aata Hai” fill up the air. When it stops, he takes out the cassette tape, rewinds it with a pencil and listens to it all over again. This is the era through which our parents and their parents have lived.
Cassettes, the first thing that allowed us to share audio and music with almost anyone and anywhere in the world, were first invented by Philips in 1962. The Phillips Company introduced the cassette and cassette player to the European market in 1963 as a medium for audio storage. The key attraction to the people was its low cost, portability, and convenience in handling, which people could not find in its predecessors, notably the reel-to-reel recorder or the vinyl. However, if you look at the numbers you would realise that their sales never took off until the 1970’s. This was because of inferior sound quality. Soon, engineers such as Ray Dolby made efforts to improve the sound quality of cassettes by developing a hiss reduction technology. These improvements, combined with the fact that it gave amateur musicians a chance to record their songs without having to be signed to a record label, led the cassette tape sale to shoot up and LP record discs found themselves hanging over walls. It was not long when the digital audio- compact audio discs (CD) took over the market from cassette tapes. CDs also brought together the best of every format that came before it: high-quality audio, compact, portable, writable and inexpensive. The interesting part is, where we consider CDs and recorders as the essence of Indian retro music, India was never a CD market. It had a brief cassette era witnessing an annual cassette sale of 180 million units, including both legitimate and pirate sales in 1990. This made it the world’s second-largest cassette market, after the United States. One of the biggest revenue streams up to around four years ago was ring back tones. In its short period, it injected over a billion dollars of revenue into an industry that was in its gloomy days.
During this era of cassettes and CDs, the piracy market also came into being and has never seen its end since then. Customization in cassettes allowed people to make illegal copies of the material protected by copyright. But, that was just the start of the most severe piracy wave which intensified with the introduction of the digital audio player: MP3. The MP3 was originally developed in the early 1980s but it wasn’t until 1992 that the MP3 went mainstream, and not until 1999 — with the creation of Napster — that the format caught fire. Napster allowed for free peer-to-peer file-sharing of the MP3 audio file that resulted in widespread copyright infringement and outrage from the music industry as it meant lower revenues for the record labels and the artists. The outrage was justified then, and even today, where people are no longer paying for their music, they are illegally downloading it. But, is the industry’s response justified? To compensate the billions of dollars cuts, one of the first casualties they commit is that they slash budgets for emerging talent. Moreover, the songwriters, sound engineers, music producers, and sound technicians are paid even less than the artist itself, or worse, they lose their jobs. This has serious impacts on the economy of a nation, if not much big, it has smaller consequences since the number of unemployed people continue to add on every year. Moreover, the government loses a large part of its tax revenue due to piracy. A report from the Recording Industry Association of America says that the U.S. economy loses a tremendous amount, approximately $12.5 billion, in total output annually as a consequence of music theft. More than 70,000 people are losing jobs every year, resulting in the loss of about $2.7 billion in earnings annually in both the sound recording industry and downstream retail industries.
But we’re no longer living in the era of illegally downloading albums into a personal collection and loading it on an iPod. We live instead in the era of Spotify, where we each pay a monthly charge for subscription and flaunt our playlists among our peers. Online streaming is bringing money back into the industry, not that the revenue percentages have shot up like that in the peak year of 1999, but are showing signs of growth with an increase in industry’s revenue by 16.5% in 2017. Spotify, Youtube Music, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Indian competitors like Wynk and Gaana, US-based Pandora- all are running in the same race and Spotify has been winning this race since 2006. But what good is this trend of online streaming that every second person, with their earphones on, is using one or the other online streaming application? Well, it is a golden age for music lovers as listeners can range over millions of tracks , can create and share playlists socially, discover new artists effortlessly through “artist radio”, and listen to their favourite songs anywhere, as it provides the feature of downloading music, all of this at a cheap price. In some cases, platforms like Youtube provide a kick-start to new and amateur artists where they can market and sell their music to their audience without the need for labels or radio promotion. The audience might not be as large as it would be otherwise—but neither does the artist has to share profits with the labels.
But, everything is not as good as it seems. Even though Spotify rules the industry, it’s not profitable. That’s because the cost of music licensing is so high and will continue to be as the company grows. Moreover, it cannot compete with its pricing. Other cheaper players are giving tough competition in the market. Additionally, online streaming also limits the artists financially. Many existing music icons such as Taylor Swift, Jay-Z are moving away from the idea of online streaming. Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé, and Coldplay have used similar tactics, offering CDs and digital downloads for sale before putting them on streaming services. Other than this, online streaming has environmental consequences also. Digital music platforms generate more pollution than phonograph cylinders, gramophone discs, vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs. This is due to the amount of energy required to create, store, and transmit files. Once vinyl or a CD is purchased, it can be played over and over again, the only carbon cost coming from running the record player. However, if we listen to our streaming music using a hi-fi sound system it’s estimated to use 107-kilowatt hours of electricity a year, costing a lot to function.
Nevertheless, the music industry has come a long way from vinyl, gramophones, cassettes to online streaming and is again moving back to old formats like cassettes and vinyl, witnessing an increase in sales in recent years. The LP, the cassette, the CD, the MP3 — each one dominated the market for about 15 years before ceding to the next technological advance. Each of them has done some benefit as well as some harm to the society. Each has its own positives and negatives and each of them has a sentimental value attached to it. Each of them has a story to tell of the era it belonged to, the songs it played, the news it announced. It is rightly said, “Nothing lasts forever, no format lives forever”.