The death of the music store

Music-as-inspirationthumbIf you look carefully, you can see the death of the music store inside any music store. CDs and actual music packages are quietly retreating from shelves and displays across the store. Music accessories, gadgets and assorted electronic peripherals are creeping into the abandoned positions.

Five to ten years from now, the takeover will be complete, and you won’t go into a music store to buy music. You will buy the devices that enhance your enjoyment of music, and you will find it quaint that these were once called record shops.

"We are already seeing an even split between consumer electronics, music, movies and gaming,” confirms Darren Levy, CEO of music chain Look & Listen, which was once almost entirely dedicated to music.

But it’s not only in stores where we can see the future arrive. The future of music has also arrived in the global hi-tech industry, where technology giants like Google, Amazon and Apple fight each other in court and online.

On 30 March, Amazon became the first of the majors to offer music in the "cloud”. This meant any digital music you had bought legitimately could be uploaded onto Amazon’s systems, and downloaded as and when you wanted it, and how you wanted it.

The very title of the Amazon executive who made the announcement is a signal: Bill Carr is "vice president of Movies and Music at Amazon”. Before long, every major technology company will have an equivalent executive.

"The launch of Cloud Drive, Cloud Player for Web and Cloud Player for Android eliminates the need for constant software updates as well as the use of thumb drives and cables to move and manage music,” Carr said in his announcement. "Our customers have told us they don’t want to download music to their work computers or phones because they find it hard to move music around to different devices.”

That’s not rocket science, but the music industry has tended to stick its head in the digital sands and hoped the future would go away. Indeed, it will go away, to be replaced by even more challenging futures, as music keeps evolving.

Less than six weeks after Amazon’s opening shot, on May 10, Google Music Beta was unveiled. Like Amazon, it offers the "locker” model, where you can store music you already own.

Apple was somewhat conspicuous by its absence from this rivalry. It had almost single-handedly changed the music industry with the launch of iTunes a decade ago, but some argued that it wanted customers’ music to remain "stuck” in iTunes and on their hard drives.

The industry didn’t have to hold its breath for long. On 6 June, Steve Jobs took to the stage to demonstrate iCloud, which allows online storage and synchronisation of users’ data on all Apple devices. The first service to be integrated with the iCloud: iTunes.

In combination, it is clear that these services herald the beginning of mass migration of digital music from hard drives, flash drives and quaint old silver discs called CDs. The destination is the Cloud, locker, vault or whatever you want to call storage that is housed on a computer network in another part of the world.

The music industry barely has a role to play in this mass migration: it is a mere bystander in the reinvention of its business. While it wrings its collective hands at the unfairness of digital tracks selling for less than R10 instead of the R140 people used to pay for entire albums on CD, the market moves on.

And this is only the first of the big changes coming. Coming editions of this column will look at the "co-revolutions” that go hand-in-hand with the movement into clouds, to create the perfect storm in music. The rise of Internet radio, online music libraries and build-it-yourself playlists means that the worst pain is still to come for traditional record companies and stores.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. He will present his research on the future of music at the Moshito music conference in Johannesburg on 31 August. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee