Let’s Get Physical: A Look at Physical Media's Evolution

Posted via Wired.com

It was the 80s. Everything was off kilter. Olivia Newton-John, who'd captured our fancies years prior as both the goody two-shoes high school prude and as her skin-tight, leather-clad alter-ego in “Grease,” was now jazzercising with short hair, a bandana headband, and leggings in her infamous “(Let’s Get) Physical” MTV video. Believe it or not, this track would be the biggest selling single in the U.S. in the 80s.

I’m not sure what’s harder to process -- that 80s fashion disaster, the fact there were actually videos on MTV, or the idea of selling physical media.

In 2013 we actually had a 1 percent decline in revenue from sales of “metaphysical” media via downloads. Digital track sales alone were down 4.5 percent (RIAA). You don’t even want to know about physical disk sales. Depending on who you ask, the sharing economy has come to the Music industry as either Savior or Destroyer. But what seems clear, regardless of your perspective, is that sharing is here to stay.

The idea of downloading songs as opposed to buying entire CDs, née albums, was certainly revolutionary. iTunes debuted in 2003 and by 2010, it was the “largest music retailer on the planet.” That’s disruption. Three years later, the Disruptor had itself been disrupted in just its tenth year. Streaming has grown significantly in both subscription and ad-supported models and now downloads are feeling their effects just as physical media at retail felt the sting during the download’s reign. Circle of life.

Why?

Mobile

The iPod needed digital content to make it work. Enter iTunes and digital downloads (plus digitizing old CD libraries). But iPod penetration was minuscule compared to current mobile penetration in terms of both units sold and time-spent-with. Virtually nobody is without their mobile for any length of time. 82.4 percent of individuals that own a mobile phone say they have it with them most of the time, if not always (The Infinite Dial 2014). Over 66 percent of online radio listeners listen via their smartphones (The Infinite Dial 2014).

Back to the Future

Unfettered access to millions upon millions of tracks is a dream for most music lovers. But it’s a lot of work to put together multiple playlists. A labor of love for some. Labor for others.

(Re)enter “Radio.”

Pandora entered the picture with the music discovery chops of both terrestrial radio and MTV in the pre-digital age. Then came playlist services like Spotify that have added radio-like features to their offerings so you can have control and veto power but don’t have to pick every track. Various combinations of “Passive + Active” listening seem to be the sweet spot for most listeners. And now, traditional radio itself is making significant innovations in the mobile sphere. Apps like TuneIn and iHeartRadio give a veritable “infinite dial” to select from for the millions who favor mixing their music with spoken word content like Sports Talk, NPR and such.

With so much listening, we need a lot of audio content to avoid staleness. But owning such colossal libraries would be simply unattainable for most. So, a combination of “leasing content” and advertising-underwriting seems to be the core equation for the modern music lover.

Caveman Drawings

The next step in the Audio Evolution is to combine pictures with sounds. MTV pioneered the concept in the 80s, but has since fallen out of favor. YouTube is now evolving the idea further to make “audio” a multi-media platform.

From Elvis’ gyrating hips, to the Beatles' mop tops, to Kurt Kobain’s wrinkled cardigan, to Rihanna’s…style; looks have always been a key component to popular music. Bringing more interviews, videos, concert footage, etc. into the equation for individual listener-directed consumption, social sharing, and community commenting will make for a stickier medium.

Of course, as Shazam is proving with its indirect revenue streams for the music industry, stickiness needs to materialize into actual commerce if audio publishers are to thrive and continually evolve. Providing transactional levers like click-to-buy tickets, merchandise, and so forth, is the “rhythm section” that keeps any good band humming. Failure to expand one’s repertoire will result in dollars, talent, and interest going elsewhere. Commercial audiences, like listening audiences, are a fickle lot in the “when’s the new single coming out?” sort of way.

It’s an exciting time for audio. There’s a ton of interest in audio-based content, new and old publishers are leveraging technology to evolve the offering in-step with a sophisticated audience’s digital expectations, and revenue channels are being lit up to ensure this can be done profitably for publishers and tastefully for audiences. Audio’s not without its challenges, but nothing great ever is.

So, while the audio picture is changing, the sound is still great and affects people in very tangible, dare I say “physical,” ways. The key is for all parties to look at ONJ’s spandex, Lycra, and leggings and solemnly swear we’re never going back to that place.

Patrick Reynolds is Chief Strategy Officer at Triton Digital.