Digital music is here to stay - and it's coming of age. With more ways than ever to acquire and listen to your favourite tunes online, does the industry think the writing's on the wall for CDs?
After the chaos of the late 1990s and early 2000s, where LimeWire and the naughty, file-sharing version of Napster reigned supreme when it came to acquiring digital music, there's been something of a shakedown.
It wasn't until 2003 that legal music downloads really became popular (and easy to obtain) with the launch of Apple's iTunes Store. In fact, iTunes is now the top music retailer in the US, with a catalogue of more than six million songs - and a colossal four billion tracks sold so far.
But that's strictly a retail service. And although the tracks you download are now DRM-free (meaning they don't have any kind of copy protection applied to them), they are still only 256kbps AAC files. That goes against the grain for many punters who, as B&W's Danny Haikin says, don't want to be restricted to one format.
"Different formats will co-exist; people listen to different music in different ways. Last.fm, for instance, is far better than radio for what it is, but sometimes you want to sit in a beanbag and listen to Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl."
Four billion tracks have been sold on iTunes
Digital as a step to physical ownership
But in the face of streaming and paid-for download services, is physical CD ownership set to die out? "No," says Daniel Ek CEO of Spotify, "a lot of people will dip into the music first on Spotify, and if they like it, they'll buy it on vinyl or CD."
That goes for bands, too – mega-superstars U2 released their new album No Line on the Horizon exclusively on Spotify a week before the CD came out; the band clearly sees it as a teaser to drive physical sales.
U2's new album was released on Spotify first
"I for one love and continue to use vinyl," Ek adds.
That Daniel Ek, the founder of such a trendy, tech-savvy service still buys music in physical form might seem surprising. But think of it this way: since the iPod stormed onto the scene in 2001 (and even before that, with the now-dead MiniDisc), people have been predicting the demise of CD. If some pundits are to be believed, vinyl has been convulsing in its death throes for the best part of 25 years.
Last.fm founder Martin Stiksel feels the same way. He's a vinyl and CD collector, and says he has no plans to stop. "As new technology comes in, the old is marginalised – it's the same in the digital domain," he says. "But people still want physical products on their shelves at home."
Richard Mollet of the BPI agrees: "Rumours of the CD's demise are exactly that," he says. "By value, 86 per cent of music sold in the UK is in physical form." While sales of singles are now almost exclusively digital – 95 per cent are purchased from the likes of iTunes – albums remain physical, with just eight per cent downloaded.
Stiksel is keen to stress that just because Last.fm can be accessed via a computer or iPhone, listeners needn't be tied to those devices. He recommends – and uses – a decent soundcard or outboard digital-to-analogue converter to get the best results.
Meridian: sales of high-end CD players are rising
In fact, Meridian, which recently acquired the amazing Sooloos system, finds sales of its high-end CD players are actually going up. "The people who want the best from their collections buy better CD players," says Roland Morcom, Meridian's director of business development.
One eye on the future, one on the past
He thinks Sooloos can enhance a CD collection, despite being a music server. "If you've a decent-sized collection, chances are only your newest and favourite CDs will be on rotation," he says. "The Sooloos system makes it more convenient to browse your collection visually – like flicking through a shelf full of vinyl."
So, even in the cutting-edge digital domain, the people who develop these products still have one eye on that age-old tradition of sitting on the floor while listening to a record - and poring over the liner notes in a gatefold album cover.
But not everyone agrees. Gilad Tiefenbrun, managing director of high-end hi-fi giant Linn, is sharpening his quill to write the compact disc's obituary. "Many people retain a genuine affection for vinyl, which has a special joy of ownership and gives people a tactile connection to the music," he says.
"Music downloads are a practical solution and, with the advent of high-resolution files, deliver the best audio quality we've ever heard. Unfortunately, CD is stuck in the middle – it will disappear within a few years."
Could this seemingly symbiotic relationship between streaming services, paid-for downloads and CD be in for a change already? Things are moving so fast that there's another player on the horizon: high-resolution music.