In a recent conversation with my audiophile father (who only buys vinyl or CDs and only ever really used his iPod this year to take his music on holiday) he brought up the subject of digital music vs music on physical mediums. This was brought about as he gatecrashed my listening of a recent doorstop drop of the album Junip by Junip the LP. On his Hi-Fi it sounded incredible. Having also been to see London Grammar live a few days before, listening to their ‘Metal & Dust’ EP really showed off the capabilities and quality of vinyl when combined with a high quality ‘audiophile grade’ sound system. A point which my dad decided he needed to showcase to me as we listened.

Now I’ve been an advocate of digital forms of music for nye on 10 years now, since (ironically enough) my dad bought me a creative MP3 player for my birthday. This is before the iPod launched so I was limited to using Windows Media Player to transfer the up to limit of 40 tracks to its internal memory. I was the first person among my friends to be using such a device and I believed (again ironically) that like my dad, digital music was the future. At that time music on the go was a disc-man. That all changed when that magic white box appeared. I was (like I am usually now) a hater at first, I didn’t like Apple, I wanted to stick by my guns with Creative. Again though my opinion changed when the 2nd generation iPod Classic and the iTunes music store took off. It was a marvel (iTunes though…. let’s not get me started on that…), so simple to use and easy to get all you wanted onto a device with more memory that we’d ever seen in a portable device before! Then along came the iPod mini and the rest is history right….?

Well increasingly not it seems. The music industry again isn’t happy with the revenue that Apple is making at its expense and more and more it’s trying to relinquish the almost iron grip Apple seems to have over digital content.

This is where they allowed and subsequently invested in subscription model services like Pandora, Spotify & Rdio to name a few. Instead of purchasing the content, you pay a fee to stream it. Genius right!!?

Nope wrong again.

Google launched Google Music All Access at I/O last month. Google’s version of the above services also includes a cloud locker for a music library that can subsequently be streamed to an Android or Chrome device for free (A service far superior to Apple’s paid and failure offering of iTunes Match). Apple’s iTunes Radio service talks were stalled apparently due to licensing deals breaking down, as usual in a row over money with the music labels and publishers which led to it’s unveiling only this week at WWDC but it was a feature they almost glossed over rather than celebrated.

Now before I go on let it be known I’ve always been a believer in paying for content, specifically music. I download and pay more for Lossless quality where I can (certainly not on iTunes that’s for sure) so artists getting their well deserved cash is not something I shy away from.

However it’s the big bands, the ones that charge you heaven and earth to see them in concert these days and the labels that are now trying to complicate these services yet again because they aren’t happy with the amount of money they are receiving. It’s a shame when some musicians are struggling and it speaks volumes that many up and coming artists are now keen to work with small labels or setup their own labels and produce their own albums to remove the complexities and politics of working with a major label.

Services like Rdio, Spotify, Pandora et. al are the saviour to music for many as it gives access to huge music databases available from everywhere (thanks to smartphones) for a reasonable monthly fee. But to others (like my dad) they are the start of further destruction to the culture of owning your music. Many twenty somethings grew up trolling the bargain basements of UK stores like Woolworths or HMV looking for singles and albums at great prices, then going home and putting them into CD decks that formed part of a separates system. We grew up like the older generations, purchasing and enjoying music on physical forms.

Has digital taken that away? Not necessarily. If you look at the high street now, Woolworths is gone and HMV was so close to disappearing in the UK but independent record stores are doing ok (especially with the yearly tradition of Record Store Day). Digital music has the benefit of being cheap, being nearly always available and instant. But what it doesn’t have, is quality or the feeling of physically owning your music. If you’re hard drive crashes or your computer gets stolen, without a backup off goes your music with it. With CD’s or vinyl though that’s not going to happen, only by extreme events like a house fire will they be lost. It’s an argument that rages on, as now people who buy CD’s and vinyl are lamented as ‘Audiophiles’ or ‘old skool’ for choosing to purchase music in a physical form.

It’s not all rosy for physical though, It always irritates me that I can’t find the album I might want in a store as it’s released as an iTunes exclusive or a downloadable EP, the death of the physical single is nearly upon us if not already and this makes me sad as usually the only way to get these tracks now is to get the digital version through services like iTunes, Google Play Music or Amazon as .mp3s which are often inferior in quality. The other thing that irritates me is that I can’t find songs/albums in Lossless quality online because it’s reserved for ‘audiophiles’ who don’t download apparently. .mp3 existed because downloading LossLess was not really possible in the dial up age and the digital retailers don’t seem to have woken up to the fact that people may want the choice of better quality that is above 320kbps now that we are (mostly) in the broadband and 4G age.

Subscription music services don’t alleviate this and only seek to further the problems, however they do have a place in the music world. They are especially brilliant as music discovery tools for those that don’t read the music press or follow the hot music blogs. As well as being a simple and cost effective way of accessing legal music.

In reality though It’s like the music industry is caught in a cross roads as to what its identity is and where its future lies. It seems that at every turn it appears to be alienating everyone from artists to events organisers to consumers. In the eyes of the consumer it looks like the money grabbing corporate exec but expects consumers to view it as the victim of tyranny from technology companies like Apple, Amazon or Google.

In my opinion the key players need to begin to work together in an effort to cross boundaries and introduce innovation once again. As for subscription vs owning music or downloads, that thankfully is still a consumer choice.