Downloads on the up

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Earlier this week, Apple announced that its iTunes store had reached a milestone – the 25 billionth song downloaded from the service.

It’s figures like that that help underline just how much digital delivery has transformed the music sales business. Whether it’s from iTunes, Amazon or other e-retailers, the writing has been on the wall for some time, as high street retail chain HMV and specialist stores such as Dress Circle (whose Covent Garden store closes – again – this weekend) have learnt to their cost.

In theory at least, digital delivery means that it becomes easier for small, indie outfits – including individual performers – to get their music out there. In practice, getting paid for that music is as hard as it’s ever been. You can go your own way, and get a friendly geek to code a PayPal checkout on your own website, manage the hosting of your files, cross your fingers that your bandwidth allowance will cope – but with the real growth in online purchases coming from one or two big players, you’re still going to need to get your music on sale through iTunes, etc., to have any chance of shifting a decent amount of units. The large gateways take a sizeable cut for the privilege of access to their users, of course, but the money that reaches the creatives’ pockets can still be far greater than income from streaming services such as Spotify.

While the ease of use of legal music downloads has been killing high street stores, it’s also been driving down the usage of illegal file sharing. That will probably never go away, but the BPI’s latest figures suggest that twice as many people download music legally as those who use peer-to-peer filesharing. Not too long ago, it was thought that the ratio of illegal-to-legal music donwloading was 10:1, so it should be reassuring that the trend is heavily towards legal downloads.

Will straight to download work? You may think that, I couldn’t possibly comment…

While radio play is still regarded as an important driver of music sales, it’s the musicians who create the content and regard the broadcaster as a route to their audience. In contrast, DVD/Blu-Ray and, latterly, downloads of video content is still predominantly content that has been commissioned by, and created for, the TV or cinema audience.

The BBC has dabbled with occasional online video content in the past. Most of the time it’s been content that supports and promotes their existing broadcast brands – Chris Chibnall’s Pond Life series that preceded the most recent series of Doctor Who, for example, or some additional scenes for Casualty that are shown via the Red Button as well as online. Occasionally some longer form content has gone online, most notably comedy pilots of the sort that would prviously have been commissioned on a non-broadcast basis.

Just today, the Corporation confirmed plans to premiere up to 40 hours of programmes on iPlayer before they are broadcast on television during a 12-month trial. If it’s anything like their previous trials for features such as “series stacking” – allowing episodes of series to be available throughout the series’ run, rather than just the seven days since broadcast – I wouldn’t be surprised to see this practice become commonplace before the trial is complete.

But the BBC’s content still seems to be destined for TV screens. Increasingly, we’re starting to see content commissioned exclusively for download. The most notable of these was launched this week, as Netflix released House of Cards, a US adaptation of the BBC political drama (itself adapted from Michael Dobbs’ novel) starring Ian Richardson. The House of Commons has been replaced by the US House of Representatives, and Richardson’s Francis Urquhart becomes Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood. Whereas straight-to-video used to mean low quality nonsense that couldn’t secure any other form of distribution, Netflix are clearly aiming high with their straight-to-download content.

There’s something very pleasing in how media companies are recognising that strong, character drama can entice people to sign up to a service. Sky’s increasing amount of commissioning in this area is for similar reasons – the broadcaster has realised that its slate of sporting events has probably done all it can to increase market penetration, so is turning towards creative content to fuel its continued growth.

What’s intriguing about House of Cards, though, is that all 13 episodes have been released in one fell swoop. It’s a nod to the increasing prevalence of box set binge consumption, of course. But I can’t help feeling that a weekly format, and the opportunity for audiences to talk about each episode before the next one comes out, is something to be savoured.

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