March-April 2019

The Answer Is Blowin’ In The Cloud

A discussion of the future of media

By Art Podell

Bunch of CDs“…The shiny compact disc, once as essential to every living-room music system as a copy of Michael Jackson's Thriller album, is quickly going the way of the eight-track and cassette tape…The rise of streaming music services such as Apple Music, Spotify and Pandora, as well as the availability of digitally downloadable tracks and albums, are making the CD extinct…” – USA Today February 2018

“…24 percent of new cars sold in 2015 did not have CD players, and by 2021, some 46 percent won't have them at all. Compare that to 2014 when 83 percent had them...” – Autoweek July 30, 2018

There is a crisis brewing and the harbingers above are forecasting the future of recorded music. It is a fact that more and more music is being offered digitally and it is feeding the growing appetite of the listening public as our devices migrate inexorably toward the 2020s where the most “disruptive” era in the ways we do things are predicted to occur. This will include the way we listen to music, the way we purchase music and the devices that bring music to us. We who treasure the preservation and continuation of traditional folk music will be facing the prospect of having to listen to the music we love without the physical enhancement of the printed literature that currently accompanies the CDs and recordings in our libraries. The photos, the lyrics, the artists’ histories and the accounts of the songs themselves, all of which frame the music we enjoy at a place and time, may be in jeopardy of going the way of the Victrola.

As the trend accelerates, releases and especially re-releases of digital music are impacting the national and international community of folk and traditional music radio hosts. Almost to a person, the bulletins and continued requests for physical music (CDs) have been sent to the record and music professionals who promote artists as well as to artists themselves. As a radio host myself (‘Roots Music and Beyond’ – KPFK Los Angeles), I have taken special note of the reaction of many of my fellow radio hosts across the United States. Almost to a person, the newsletters and correspondence continue to encourage the submission of CDs. Some hosts will not accept digital submissions, some will. To a radio host who entertains and mildly educates his or her listeners, very little can substitute for the printed material included in CD packaging that affords that host the pleasure of framing the music he or she plays with history and color, and providing the details of the recording, the sidemen, the studio, the production, etc.

The diminishing availability of devices that play physical music will undoubtedly become more and more of an issue as we go forward.

The transition from physical packaging to digital production will especially impact the performers, folk-artists, singer-songwriters, etc. who depend on the sale of a physical product – “merch” (short for merchandise) at the smaller venues, house concerts, etc. where they perform. During these times of diminishing royalty returns from online providers such as YouTube, iTunes, etc., the artists’ “merch” is a vital component of their livelihood. It is for this economic reason that these artists will most likely continue to invest in physical packaging such as CDs and the current, perhaps temporary fascination with the return of the vinyl record which seems to have gained favor. This fascination with vinyl could easily subside as the product is subject to wear and tear that diminishes quality. That will most likely be discovered soon enough.

As we move closer to the future, the availability of CD players in cars are predicted to diminish as well as will the integration of CD devices in the newer home playback equipment. Turntables are readily available today in the major sound outlets due to the current fascination with vinyl, but five years ago, turntables were available only in select locations. Might the same situation occur with CD Players? Only time will tell, but the younger market is on track to a digital future. No doubt an older generation will preserve their collections of physical music but if we are to reach more and more younger people and as time adds years and broadens the musical tastes of younger people, the evolution of our musical devices and listening habits will have to find ways to bring the same completeness that our current media possesses or we will be losing a precious resource.

Art Podell was one half of the iconic Greenwich Village duo Art and Paul before moving to L.A. in 1961. An original member of the New Christy Minstrels, Art wrote songs for many of the artists of the day. He continues to perform and write and he rotates as a host of KPFK’s Roots Music and Beyond.


All Columns by Art Podell