Tony Martin

Whatever the fears of record companies, and some retailers, the future of music sales and distribution is online. However, little will change until recordable digital media become easily available for consumers. Tony Martin is managing directo

To many in the music industry, the very notion of online music retail and digital distribution was seen until recently as the equivalent of the anti-Christ to any God-fearing “vinyl” vendor.

Now, with the likes of Tower Records, HMV, Virgin Retail and others champing at the bit to get their particular brand on the Web, it seems there has been a sea-change in its perception among some retailers.

But while they jump in with both feet, the record companies still seem fearful. Why?

Firstly, there is the fear of piracy. But you don’t have to be a genius to recognise that record companies already leak digital copies (CDs) of their catalogue to the public that can easily be copied, turned into other recordings and sold illicitly. Why should the fact that the digital copy exists online make this situation worse?

Secondly, there’s the fear of offending retailers, provoking them to take a particular record company’s products off the shelves if they dare to sell direct to the public. The thing is, there won’t even be shelves in the not too distant future. Digital distribution is coming.

Actually, it’s already here, though not widely used. Delivery technology is good, quick, intuitive and stable. It even ensures the artist gets the same cut of royalty as from a “physical” sale.

This technology gives punters the tools to download CD-quality audio direct to their homes. But there’s no reason to suppose high street retailers need be cut out of the deal.

The future music outlet will be a host of “listening posts” where the consumer will be able to check out a record, hit the “accept” button, swipe a credit card, and then pick up the music freshly downloaded on a recordable CD when leaving the store.

All those racks of CDs and the maze of nonsensical categorisation may go. What a shame! But, for some reason, some retailers want to hold onto all that stock, huge premises and major staff overheads.

There’s every reason to believe music sold both direct to the consumer and through retail outlets can prosper in this digital environment.

But to achieve mass-market demand for downloading music, pricing and format problems still have to be overcome before we see widescale consumer adoption of the necessary hardware required.

Electronics retailers haven’t yet convinced your average record buyer of the virtues of recordable digital media, like Mini-Disc or even recordable CDs.

Until these devices are cheaply bundled with your PC or TV, allowing the downloading of music via cable modem, the revolution is officially on hold. Sorry.

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