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Where Music Has Gone

Recently, my Samsung music system broke down and I was left with a modest collection of music VCDs and DVDs accumulated in the 80s. When the Samsung shop assured me that the system was beyond resusciation since the parts had become obsolete, I went around the Kottayam shops to find a replacement at moderate cost. I was told by everyone that music has gone digital, comes directly from the internet and that I should not invest in hardware, considering the cost and vulnerability to failure.

My own encounter with listening technology started when I acquired a HMV record player from the Rhythm House in Ahmedabad to play my growing collection of Joan Baez LP records. I soon grew tired of the finicky care required in launching an LP without damaging it and the constant maintenance required to keep the records free of dust, scratch and warp. There was a brief interlude with cassette players, which were equally temperamental.

By early 90s I had acquired a HP desktop computer, thanks to my institute’s policy of equipping senior scientists with a computer at home. There was good connectivity with the Satyam dialup wifi connection. The windows media player introduced me to the pleasures of ‘ripping’ (the word is suggestive of the violence in the process that violates the copyright associated with a dvd) dvds to convert them into MP3 files. The MP3file is an audio file that uses a compression algorithm to reduce the overall file size. This format was created by the Moving Pictures Experts Group and became the preferred format for digital sound in mid 1990s.

In 1998, Shawn Fanning who went with the username “napster” revealed to the internet community that he had developed a programme which would allow people to share their MP3 music files across the internet. Sean Parker, an aspiring entrepreneur, liked the idea and proposed collaboration. Napster, born of this alliance became active in May 1999. Shortly after this, its collection grew to 4 million songs. By March of the next year, Napster users exceeded 20 million.

I was introduced to Napster, befittingly, by my children who are music aficionados. I remember sharing my modest collection of music with my peers. Despite the slow pace of file sharing due to poor wifi speeds, this made me realize the true meaning of the expression that internet connects the world.

By the summer of 2000, Napster had explosive growth and close to 14,000 songs were being downloaded every minute. Fanning became a celebrity and was on Time magazine cover in October 2000.

The Recording Industry Association of America and many music groups did not take the violation of digital rights lying down. They sued Napster for copyright violation and won. Napster was forced to shut down. By late 2002, the file-sharing service that had more than 80 million enthusiasts went out of business. Napster reopened in September the same year, after paying the past and future royalties. It then tried to turn the service into a subscription mode. The unique contribution of Napster to the music world was to reveal without any doubt that the future of music was online, and not in racks of metal and plastic.

Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder and chief executive, realised by late 2002 the true meaning of the Napster revolution. The music fans clearly wanted to download songs they liked in an affordable and easy way instead of purchasing it from a shop. But the record industry lacked an easy and legal option enabling this. Jobs began to contact major record labels with his plan. By this time, Apple had already hatched the iTunes Music Store and was ready with a piece of hardware that was hungry for content: the iPod.

In the 2001 Macworld Expo, Steve Jobs introduced iTunes, arguably the most important software Apple ever released, other than its operating systems. iTunes led the way for its transition from a computer hardware and software company to the thought leader of the industry it has become today. The iTunes Music Store opened in April 28th, 2003 with a collection of 200,000 songs and selling a million in the first week. By mid 2004, it had sold a million iPods. The world was soon wearing the signature white earbuds and rocking to their own soundtracks.

In its first week, iTunes sold one million downloads and soon became the top music retailer. The business model shifted from high cost CDs to inexpensive singles. This was how fans would buy music in the future, whether the record industry liked it or not.

iTunes is already an anachronism in the fast changing digital world displaced by live streaming. Thus, internet radio was born pioneered by Pandora and followed by These apps grew smart by adding algorithms which would figure out your music preferences from your choice of music and stream it automatically. Spotify entered the scene in 2006 and is the largest and most popular audio streaming subscription service in the world, with an estimated 286 million users.

The release of the iPhone was even more of a game-changer, with these formerly desktop-only apps offering a mobile option. Consumers were no longer beholden to Apple for music download or streaming options.

With the arrival of Apple Music in 2015, Spotify got competition. It secured exclusive deals with artists to stream their music first. The ubiquitous presence of YouTube and websites like Pandora, Rdio, Rhapsody make it easy for fans to stream any song, anytime, for free. However there is evidence that a good fraction of music fans believe in owning songs and albums.

Recent developments indicate that beyond Europe and US, new hubs of music business are emerging. Anghami, based in Abu Dhabi, has become a vital part of shaping the music business in the Middle East and North Africa. It has 70 million members and a huge library. It’s also the first startup from middle east to go public an American stock exchange. Anghami’s trajectory indicates how the global music industry is finding new growth centres.

Liberating music from the physical constraints of vinyl and quartz allowed it to stream through the internet web and into your homes at the flick of a switch. This allowed us to experiment with music in a way never possible earlier. I have an app on my iPhone called Radio Garden. It is supported by the Netherlands Institute of Sound and Vision. Here’s how it works: your screen shows a three dimensional picture of earth.The picture is covered by thousands of little green dots, each representing a radio station. As you turn the earth, radio stations on the screen come alive. A circle on the screen locates one of those dots/stations and begins playing what the station is broadcasting at that moment. You can listen to the whole world.

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