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Conquering mobile music – streaming or downloads

Charlotta Hedman 

Let us start with the mp3, because that is really where the story begins. The mp3 is a compressed audio file that was developed sometime in the late 80s and released in 1993. At that time most of us didn’t know things were going to change. We were happily buying audio cassettes and CDs. We had slow computers with dial up modems. Some of us might have walked around with clunky mobile phones and been on the cutting edge of the tech. What happened over the next ten years took several industries by surprise.

The dial up speeds got faster, the hard-drives became bigger. Services like Napster and Limewire replaced mixtapes, now there was an easier way of sharing music with friends. Broadband speeds made downloading even easier, why buy a CD when you can download it for free in ten minutes? Mp3s where whizzing between hard-drives from the States to Finland to India. Then came the iPod and iTunes and their more piracy friendly brother the generic mp3-player. Physical music was slowly being reduced to a heavy clutter from the past. Digital was on the rise, both within Steve Jobs’s closed circuit and because of piracy.

The mp3-file ruled supreme, but a couple of years ago another change occurred, streaming. Today we’re walking around with mp3s or other compressed audio files on our smartphones, thinking we are on the cutting edge of tech. But things are changing again.

We are looking at an industry where mobile is overtaking computers. In 2011 more smartphones were shipped than computers. Almost half a billion smartphones were sent all over the world, a 60 percent increase from the year before. Mobile internet usage is doubling year by year. At the same time global digital revenue for music is going up and grew by eight percent in 2011 according to IFPI.

In 2011 Juniper Research predicted that the mobile music market will bring in revenues of $5.5 billion in 2015. Quite a lot considering that the global digital music market was worth $5.2 billion last year. It might be worth taking predictions like this with a pinch of salt, but the digital music market is growing and more and more of us are accessing music with the help of our smartphones.

Even though it would be easy to download files with P2P filesharing apps, mobile phones are offering legitimate and user friendly alternatives. As consumers we are already used to iTunes or streaming apps, mobile piracy seems like unnecessary hassle. This is an opportunity for the music industry and for mobile phone manufacturers.

So far Apple is still the major player in mobile music. With the help of iTunes it has built a platform and a loyal following, but Spotify has also been successful at breaking into the mobile market. Other big mobile players like Nokia and Android are lagging behind, not having been able to offer a platform that can rival iTunes, yet. However the battle is now being fought between compressed digital audio files, like mp3s, and streaming services. And that is where Apple’s hegemony can be broken.

Will users prefer subscription services with unlimited streaming or do they want to own the audiofile? In a sense the mp3-file is the clunky physical item here, it takes up space, it has to be moved from one hard-drive to the next. Sure cloud services is making this easier as they allow you to own your own files and access them from any device. Streaming is lightweight, it can be used anywhere, on any device, all you need to do is to log in. Saving playlists also means that it is possible to access the music offline, which is imperative for any mobile music player.

Where does this leave the mp3, the catalyst for many of the changes in the music industry during the last 20 years. Compressed audio files are used in streaming, but the file is just another container, a CD, a cassette. It is the services that really matter. In the end it is the users who will decide how they want to access their music. Mobile phones are changing the landscape again, but this time it looks like it could be a good thing for the music industry.

Want to know more about how the mobile phone industry is changing the music landscape, check out the next Music 4.5 event Mobile Music – the sound of the future.