Dr Steven Brown examines our preferences for digital music enjoyment.
How do you listen to music?
There are so many different ways nowadays, both online and offline, both legal and illegal.
Why choose one over another?
It’s an interesting time, and talking to friends, family, and colleagues, you realise quickly that people engage in all manner of different music-listening practices. This, quite simply, is due to the fact there are so many. In the digital world, there are over 500 legal digital services globally. Arguably, the choices cause people to stick to the familiar. Unless one service offers something new, or something better, why change?
Recent research published in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour, highlights that people increasingly access music in multiple, complementary ways. Through a series of 35 interviews, Sinclair and Green found that people’s music listening patterns can be defined across a continuum of preference for music piracy. With ‘steadfast pirates’ (dedicated to illegal downloading) on one side, and ‘old schoolers’ on the other (disinterested in both legal and illegal digital platforms), many participants were somewhere in the middle, occasionally engaging in music piracy, but also using Spotify, for instance.
Music piracy is in decline.
Or so you might suspect, from reviewing industry body International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s (IFPI) annual reports. Their inevitable discussion of music piracy receives less attention with every passing year.
Spotify is credited with converting so-called ‘music pirates’ towards legal alternatives.
Certainly, it ticks all the boxes: cheap, convenient access to large volumes of music. This is what music piracy offers. But, it poses the additional benefits of reducing the time and effort searching for and downloading files (some of which might not even be what you were looking for), plus there’s no risk of computer viruses.
However, recent research suggests that Spotify might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Leaving aside obvious issues about royalties, a recent article published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior finds that those engaged in music streaming are more likely to engage in music piracy. Elsewhere, economists Aguiar and Waldfogel find that Spotify offsets both legal and illegal downloads, producing what they call a ‘revenue neutral effect’. Or, whilst those who used to engage in music piracy now use Spotify, so too do those who used to buy music legally.
A fair summary would be that increasingly, we mix and match different music services to satisfy different needs.
Notably, music industry commentator Mark Mulligan argues that Spotify is leading to ‘shallower engagement with music’. Put simply, though we now listen to more music than ever before, people are not engaging with it in the same way – the impact is that we are not building relationships with musicians as much.
Certainly, findings from my recent Doctoral thesis ‘The Psychology of Music Piracy’*, found that people do want to pay for music by their favourite musicians – they are just unconvinced that buying recorded music is the best way to do so. And, they are correct. Musicians make a far greater slice of the pie from concerts than from albums.
The recent success of Adele’s latest album 25, the fastest-selling album in history, highlights the powerful role of fan worship on music sales.
The album is somewhat of anomaly, given the general downturn of recorded music. However, it is likely down to her predominantly female fan-base, with research consistently showing that it is predominantly young males who engage in music piracy. Interestingly, more people searched for her lyrics on Google than illegal versions of the album.
And all of this as the record remained unavailable on all but one music subscription service – Rhapsody.
So where does all of this leave us?
Things are constantly changing in the music world, and for the most part, this is probably a good thing. At least for consumers, we now have a great deal of choice.
Where we go from here is anyone’s guess, but my suspicion is that things will continue to look very similar, as they have done for the last five years. The mechanics of it all might change, but for consumers, I expect that the so-called digital revolution will be more of an evolution, with changes so gradual, we will barely even register them.
* Thesis available upon request (it is yet to be made available online, with much of the research under review in various academic journals).