Wait, Music Downloads Are Already Halfway to Obsolescence?

Alas poor downloads, we knew them well.

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Billboard is running a provocatively titled piece about the status of the music download in the wake of Spotify and Rdio’s arrival, calling the download “middle-aged” as streaming cuts into what not so many years ago was a fledgling format itself in the process of dethroning CDs.

“Digital purchases are down almost across the board this year,” writes the site, noting that track sales were down nearly 4.5% through late November, and that track-equivalent (10 tracks per) album sales were down 2.1%. Put tracks and albums together and “total digital purchases are down 4%” — not a ginormous number, but Billboard notes track sales are moving in one direction (down) and steadily declining all year. Digital album sales for 2013 vs. 2012 are particularly anemic compared to 2012 vs. 2011, notes Billboard.

Could it be because 2013 was an off year for hit songs or full albums compared to prior years? Nope, says Billboard — 2013′s seen plenty of both. Instead, all the new ways people can interact with music — Spotify to Grooveshark to Rdio to YouTube — seems the most plausible culprit.

That would make some of this semantic: Streaming, technically speaking, is downloading, you’re just not allowed to retain the data, or if a service offers an option to do so, something like Spotify’s offline sync option, you’re just renting those packets. The Download, capital ‘D’, entails ownership; the download, lowercase ‘d’, has become an ephemeral artifact.

You can see this in catalog vs. current sales, says Billboard. Current digital album sales are actually up, while catalog sales are negative. This makes sense if we assume people are increasingly getting catalog music from streaming services (half the time I want to show someone a tune, for instance, I pop off a YouTube link), but willing to fork over cash for the latest Lady Gaga or Kelly Clarkson or Katy Perry album at launch because, well…novelty coupled with the psychological need to mark turf — to own the thing you’re celebrating because owning feels more devotional than renting. (The latter surely has generational elements, too.)

Assuming the subscription model doesn’t make it prohibitive for all but a handful of ultra-popular artists to make music, look for the download’s demise to continue through 2014 and beyond, as the Netflix-ification of digital music continues.

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