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At the turn of the millennium, 14 years before Kim Kardashian broke the internet, the internet broke the music industry.
The advent of P2P file sharing combined music and technology, allowing users to exchange songs along phone lines. This was usually in the form of the MP3, a compressed audio file that can make a three-minute song 3MB – an eight-minute dial-up download in 2000. Suddenly music became a hotly traded digital commodity, putting big artists on small hard drives. The listener was in control.
To counteract piracy, the industry had to embrace the internet, which would make record labels far less money than physical media. In the US, annual revenues fell from US$14.6 billion in 1999 to US$6.3 billion in 2009. Now, in the age of super-fast fibre, streaming media has become the logical next step. And the rest is history.
Or is it? There will always be those who savour music as an immersive package of songs, art and lyrics. For them, the audio is only part of the journey. They still yearn for the perceived extra value tangible objects bring to the listening experience. Lucky for them, as CD sales declined, some artists began experimenting with releasing songs in different ways.
1. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
Irish rockers U2 were among the first. Way back in 2004, when everyone wanted an MP3 player, the band partnered with Apple to try to maintain the magic of the physical format. To promote How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, Apple crafted limited edition U2-branded iPods. These featured the entire U2 catalogue, including the album itself.
2. Year Zero
Industrial band Nine Inch Nails did something similar in 2007. Year Zero’s release was an alternate reality game that started with a fan finding a USB flash drive in a concert venue’s bathroom. The drive contained a high-quality MP3 of one of the new album’s songs as well as a clue to locating more. Its contents soon found their way online. Several more clues then came to light, unveiling a series of websites unpacking the album’s story.
Frontman Trent Reznor said at the time: 'The medium of the CD is out of date and irrelevant.'
3. In Rainbows
Another landmark was Radiohead’s 2007 album, which introduced a 'pay what you want' (even nothing) model to downloading music. A limited-edition physical package for hardcore fans followed.
The late, great Prince tried to eschew online media altogether with the release of his 2010 album. He went full traditional, including 20Ten on CD with copies of European newspapers and magazines.
Later that same year, with zero fanfare, Beyoncé dropped her new, self-titled 'visual album' on iTunes. It featured cinema-quality mini-movies for each song.
Massive Attack’s 1998 masterpiece was the first album you could stream for free when it came out. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the trip-hop act reissued the collection ... encoded as strands of synthetic DNA.
Band member Robert Del Naja says: 'If you were to spray, scrape it off the wall and have it analysed in the correct conditions, you’d be able to play the album back – as soon the right player becomes available.'
7. Magna Carta Holy Grail
In 2013, Jay-Z pulled a U2. During that year’s NBA Finals, the rapper featured in a Samsung ad where he announced the name of his new album. It subsequently shipped as a free download for one million Galaxy users and had a wider release three days later.
The empire strikes back
Despite the intriguing way these albums came out, they all have one thing in common: they’re all currently available for streaming. It turns out Apple Music, Deezer, Google Play Music, Joox, Tidal, YouTube Music and the like have become the preferred way to consume music. In 2015, Universal Music Group alone posted revenues of more than US$5 billion. In 2018, income from streaming finally surpassed that from the sale of traditional formats.
The latest music trends notwithstanding, it looks like streaming media is here to stay.