Hands up how many of you have walked into a record store, seen a CD, and thought “I already have it on vinyl, but this would be the copy I could play all the time”. Ok, more up-to-date, how many have gone onto iTunes and thought “I already have the album, but I can put this single straight on my mp3 player”. Take a long, hard look at your record collection and work out just how many duplicates of songs or albums you actually have. This is how the record industry has been sustaining itself in recent years, and it can’t last.

The formats we listen to our music in are constantly evolving. From the initial massive wax discs (good for music quality, bad for portability) with the gorgeously designed covers, we moved on to cassettes (bad for quality, good for portability). The less said about cassettes the better. Then, for me, the ultimate compromise was struck - CDs, with their good sound quality, and relatively good portability. But we’ve moved on again to mp3s and digital music, and the balance has once again changed to being able to have our music anywhere we like, but having to sacrifice the quality of the recordings. Every time the technology changes, we buy our entire record collection over again. So what happens when the large music companies have wrung every ‘remastered’ or ‘digitally enhanced’ possibility out of an artist’s back catalogue? We’re about to find out, as profits from sales of all records have dropped to an all-time low because the record-buying public are going back to their usual routine of only buying new artists that appeal to them. And it shows, because the amount of sales it takes to make an artist number one in the charts is a far cry from the millions the Beatles sold to reach number one.

The increase in downloading has not only affected the divide in formats in which we buy our music, but also how that music reaches us. With downloads, it’s far more likely a purchaser decides to buy a single track they like, or perhaps the equivalent of an EP. Why buy three good songs and nine pieces of filler when you can cut out the filler? Never mind that you don’t know whether the other tracks are good or not until you’ve bought it or listened to it. This is, potentially, the death of the album, as people can cherry-pick their favourite songs and create an instant ‘Greatest Hits’.

The very idea of ‘buying’ a record is abhorrent to some people (I’m not talking about journalists having records thrust upon us, you cheeky lot.) Why should they, when firms like Napster or YouTube can post mp3s or videos online and you can own them free of charge with the click of a mouse? The music industry long ago realised that it should have been in bed with Napster, so to speak, from the start. Initial talks to ‘legitimise’ the download site with record company approved monthly subscription fees eventually broke down, probably because it was difficult for anyone working within the current music industry to get their head around having to do a whole new kind of business, from the ground up. And not only that, they would be sabotaging their own current business in the process, and their deals with record shops and distributors no longer became profitable in the light of downloadable sales. It seemed illogical to actually undercut your own business by selling the same product cheaper elsewhere, especially if it didn’t work out or this was just another ‘phase’. It reached the point where the record companies had lost out on many profits from downloading in the early days, and also lost the physical record sales anyway.

Of course, the record industry has clawed back some of their rights against peer-to-peer sharing. EMI allowed Apple’s iTunes store to sell its products without copy protection, which was a major concession on EMI’s part. All the major record companies have now made deals with YouTube licensing out their music on legitimised channels rather than suing for copyright violation. It’s their way of clawing back some semblance of control over and otherwise unstoppable force, but it’s not the all-consuming control such companies are used to. Even the record companies’ own attempts at jumping on the downloading bandwagon, such as PressPlay or MusicNet were deemed failures as they were comparatively expensive, and had copyright restrictions that didn’t allow the music to be burned to disc or synched to an mp3 player.

It’s also had an unfortunate knock-on effect for the artists under their control. The less money a record company makes, the less it has to fund its artists with. The more concessions to downloading pressures it makes, for example, cheaper prices or even freebies, making sure an artist puts out everything they possibly can, the more pressure it puts on the artists to work for less and to create more. The ultimate unsustainable resource. Some record companies have reportedly even added clauses into contracts demanding shares in touring, merchandising, sponsorship and other ‘extra-curricular’ moneymaking schemes that would have previously been a large chunk of an artist’s income. Remember, the more control a record company has over its artists’ actions, the more they can prevent as well as promote that artist.

Just as an aside, the larger labels have been knocked for six by new, smaller labels snatching up their disaffected artists. Don’t cheer just yet, because those labels are very often run by large companies with the funds appearing from elsewhere. Think Paul McCartney as his switch from long-time label EMI to the Starbucks-run Hear Music. Or the industry deals with iTunes, owned by computer giant Apple. Does your brand spanking new phone “come with music”? You have to wonder where the record industry stops, and other consumer markets begin…

You can never underestimate the power of emotion in the rise of downloads and the fall of traditional business models. Music, like any art form, is connected very deeply with the expressions of both artists’ and listeners’ souls. Their creative expression. In many peoples’ opinions, it has very little to do with money. In some ways, they’re absolutely right - there’s no money in it these days whatsoever (ok, I joke, but there is a serious point.) However, goodwill is necessary. Record labels are cutting out whole departments, and laying off their staff. They’re suing thousands of ordinary people, albeit music pirates, and are getting a reputation as ‘the bad guys’ in the story. They’re clawing more profits from music publishing than before. When people say it shouldn’t be about the money, it should be about the music, we have to consider the balance that has to be struck. A record company has to be earning enough money as a business to actually record and promote artists, but not gaining too much control over them, and turning solely into a self-perpetuating money-making machine. It’s a puzzle that is unlikely to resolve itself any time soon, because there is no united front for the industry.