Like CDs and cassettes, digital downloads have been written off as dead. Yet the evidence clearly shows they’re not dead and provide many musicians with far better income than the relative peanuts of streaming platforms.

Call us old-fashioned, but RCS Music News Weekly doesn’t believe something should be called “dead” when it’s clearly still breathing. Case in point:

Beginning this month, five songs per month will be released via Bandcamp from Through the Wire, a collection of 50 re-imagined Peter Gabriel songs recorded by 140+ acclaimed musicians, including previous members of Gabriel’s band. Spanning over 40 years of Gabriel’s career, the project will include well-known Gabriel hits, as well as obscure and previously unfinished tracks.

“Wait a tick! Why would they do that? Aren’t digital downloads dead?”

The Evidence Clearly Says No

A few examples:

  • In 2017 (one year after Digital Music News declared paid music downloads would be dead by 2021), revenue for the 3,500 independent labels on Bandcamp grew 73% and more than 600,000 artists had sold something through the site.
  • During the pandemic, Bandcamp waived revenue sharing to help artists and indie labels earn more money, and fans got behind the initiative. Bandcamp co-founder Ethan Diamond reported that fans paid artists $4.3 million through the platform on March 20, 2020, for digital album downloads, singles, and merch, and paid $7.1 million on May 1, 2020.
  • On April 19, 2021, Towards Data Science published an extensively researched article showing that U.S. music fans made 2,897,310 total purchases on Bandcamp in 2020. Canada ranked fourth (314,503 total purchases) after the UK (1,012,555) and Germany (538,690).

You don’t need a data science degree to understand the picture painted by the numbers.

Where dead means done (as in no longer alive), digital music downloads are clearly not dead.

So, why do some music industry organizations and professionals say they are?

They generally do so from a perspective rooted in other numbers.

Example: The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported that music sales revenue grew 9.2% in 2020 to reach $12.2 billion for U.S. record labels.

To frame this titanic number in a way that’s easier to grasp (but just barely): According to calculations by Music Business Worldwide, three major music companies—Universal Music Group, Sony Music Group, and Warner Music Group—generated $5.6 billion in the second quarter of 2021. That number equates to the three majors cumulatively generating $2.56 million every hour.

Like any business, major record companies value the fattest cash cow in the herd, and for the majors, that billion-dollar bovine is streaming. According to the RIAA, paid subscription services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music accounted for 83% of total music industry revenues for 2020, whereas:

  • Physical products (vinyl, CDs, cassettes) accounted for 9%.
  • Digital downloads accounted for 6%.
  • Synch revenue (licensed use of recorded music in movies, TV shows, ads, video games, etc.) accounted for 2%.

So, what some music industry organizations and professionals are really saying by using the word “dead” is that, despite the millions of dollars that 9%, 6%, and 2% represent, those millions are trifling and inconsequential to the fatter payday of streaming.

To call a spade a spade, that view is arrogant, assumptive, and dismissive when less-than-billion-dollar numbers from digital downloads are anything but inconsequential to countless artists who took a royal hammering by COVID and barely make laundry money or less from the streaming services that are making record companies rich.

Case in point: In a June 4, 2020, article by Pitchfork comparing money earned by artists from Bandcamp versus streaming services, Che Chen (75 Dollar Bill) said, “Streaming is a joke.” Saying how he might make $100 a year from streaming, Chen shared how one track played 580 times on Spotify was “zero dollars and 20 cents.” By comparison, income from Bandcamp Days allowed Chen to pay out several hundred dollars to each of the seven-piece lineup that played on the album Live at Tubby’s, as well as the shuttered New York venue where the album was recorded.

Similarly in the Pitchfork article, Hether Fortune (former leader of the Wax Idols) said she made $1,500 from one Bandcamp Days event, “which is a shitload of money for me,” whereas “Maybe I’ve gotten that much over the last five years in total from Spotify.”

RCS Music News Weekly is no mathematical genius. However, if you adopt the same lens as the majors and pragmatically focus on the best payday, why would you not view digital downloads (even briefly) as an important part of viable income and relegate streaming to the category of marketing and other unpaid promotions?

Such questions, of course, naturally pose a wallet-unfriendly threat to streaming services, record company investments, and businesses with music companies as clients.

Case in point: As reported by Rolling Stone on Feb. 14, 2022, UMG and Sony (the world’s two largest music companies) are both major music rightsholders on Spotify and shareholders in the company. When billions of dollars appear on the balance sheet, record company execs are naturally going to support public focus on streaming and its continued use. As well, businesses with music companies as clients are going to support the interests of their clients.

For example: In a March 2021 blog for Copyright and Technology, Bill Rosenblatt writes at length about the industry merits of streaming. Having written three years earlier in a Forbes article that “downloads should soon fall off the map, and few will miss them,” Rosenblatt writes carte blanche in his blog, saying, “After many years of being offered ersatz ownership of digital music via downloads, consumers have decided that they don’t care about ownership when it comes to digital music.” And his assertions make perfect sense, given that Rosenblatt is President of GiantSteps Media Technology Strategies, which operates the Copyright and Technology blog and whose media clients include Sony Music, Warner Music Group, and Spotify.

Based on this, it is not unreasonable to theorize that other businesses have adopted the same stance in a more public fashion as a position of defense and distraction. Indeed, in the court of public opinion, it is not uncommon to hear people cite the downward sales trend of digital downloads as the death certificate, and there has been a downward trend. According to the RIAA’s year-end report, digital album downloads fell 13% in 2020, and individual track downloads fell 23%.

The thing to keep in mind here, though, is the obvious.

Member record companies who report their sales data to the RIAA have the money to produce releases in multiple formats: vinyl, streaming, digital downloads, etc. Given the range of options, consumers are naturally going to use the music subscriptions they’ve already paid for or gravitate toward vinyl, currently the trendiest model on the physical format runway.

Indie labels and artists usually don’t have the budget to release music in multiple formats. Vinyl alone is currently cost-prohibitive for many artists. So, they’re choosing digital downloads as the most viable option to reach a wide audience, and by the numbers, music fans are clearly happy to pay for downloads.

Moreover, a downward trend is not a predeterminant of outcome.

When a ski jumper, for example, begins a long descent down a hill, one can certainly predict the jumper will eventually crash and be wiped from the competition, and sure. Sometimes they do crash. Yet just like Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards was written off as an uncomfortable embarrassment during the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, some ski jumpers stick the landing (however tenuously), retain the hearts of fans, and stay in it, even if they’re in last place.

In other words, music industry organizations and experts can make all the predictions they want, but they don’t have a crystal ball. They’re only making guesses based on comparative numbers, personal bias, and interests they may not be revealing.

What we’re left with in the whole downloads-are-dead debate is uncertainty. They may eventually rest under six feet of dirt, or they may level out and grow. Whatever happens, it will come down to what readers like you decide to do.

RCS Music News Weekly acknowledges that many people typically don’t like uncertainty, which accounts for the ravenous toilet paper hoarding frenzy earlier in the pandemic. So, if uncertainty unsettles you, here’s one thing that is certain right now.

Digital downloads may be down but they’re not dead, and someone saying so (to be blunt) may just be spin-doctoring, parroting headlines, or trying to sound cool.

If you’ve read this far, the entire RCS Music News Weekly team salutes you. In a time when people make snap judgments based on headlines alone, some truths cannot be presented within a tweet. Moreover, your time spent reading this article is why long-form journalism is hanging in there. Thanks for doing your part. You rock.

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Cheers. Thanks again. Stay awesome.