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The dilemma of digital downloads

Country Standard Time Editorial, September 2005

The musical marketplace remains difficult for record labels and artists alike. Many factors contribute to that.

The key problem cited by record companies in recent years has been file sharing where consumers use software such as Napster (when it was illegal) and similar programs to trade musical files with their friends. Record companies and artists do not receive any money as a result. Some musicians fought hard against this practice, while others have embraced it, apparently resorting to other means to earn a musical living, such as hitting the road for concerts.

The marketplace is also driven by the bottom line where the number of record companies decreased, and they also seem more beholden to shareholders rather than the art of making music. That does not bode well for putting out quality music, another problem cited in recent years.

While at times true, in reality, if you can't find something you like out there, chances are you really don't like music.

There is also another factor at play in this download world that is potentially problematic for both bands and records companies alike and also has implications for listeners - the legal digital download of a single song.

Singles are really a thing of the past when it comes to buying a song at your local record retailer. And that had nothing to do with file sharing. The idea of buying a single song on vinyl or disc is simply history.

But now thanks to Apple, Rhapsody, Napster and other companies, consumers can buy songs, usually for 99 cents apiece on line. The Ipod also has encouraged the purchase of single songs.

Doing so and making a song affordable helps to curb file sharing, while, of course, putting money in the pockets of the record labels and artists.

But from an artistic standpoint, there is also a problem with single downloads. The result could be that music is driven by songs instead of full-length CDs. The emphasis will be on putting out songs that are capable of being pushed as a single download instead of the need for the consumer to buy an entire album and experience the breath and depth of an artist.

And this only helps encourage flavor-of-the-month artists instead of those with long legs, artists that will be around for years. Let's hope that does not fall by the wayside in these trying times.

Let's face it...not every song is destined to be a hit single. Nor should it as songs can convey different messages and feelings. Not all songs should necessarily be catchy ear candy destined to be heard on your hits radio station 24-7 and therefore your MP3 player.

There are no easy answers with this dilemma.

Artists and record labels can justifiably argue that they would rather the consumer at least check out an artist than ignore the musician because they don't want to buy an entire album. Who knows? Maybe if buying a popular song, consumers will dig a little deeper and buy more songs of the artist.

And maybe not.

Let's hope the public will continue to give artist's a full, fair shake when it comes to buying albums and listening to music.