The digital download, ushered in to the mass market more than a decade ago by Apple’s iTunes music store, is in rapid decline as people shift to streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music.
The shift from downloads to streaming is highlighted by the biggest-selling singles of this year and 2006, when Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy became the first download-only song to top the UK charts, in a sign the digital format was eclipsing CD sales. Crazy shifted nearly 661,000 units during its nine weeks at UK No 1 and went on to sell more than 1m downloads.
This summer, Drake’s One Dance matched the record achieved by Wet Wet Wet’s Love Is All Around for 15 weeks at No 1 in the UK singles chart – which now combines download, physical and streaming equivalent sales. By the end of September, it had racked up 1.695m sales, including nearly 505,000 downloads and a whopping 119m streams.
Streaming’s advantages are that you can listen to any of millions of tracks whenever you like, and create playlists; paying subscribers can also download individual tracks for offline listening. The disadvantage: if you stop paying the monthly stipend of about £10, the access, playlists and downloads evaporate.
By contrast, a purchased download lasts forever – but it’s the only thing you can listen to.
The people who embraced downloading, started in 2003 by Apple’s iTunes music store, were the tech-savvy types who shifted easily over to streaming. Thus the download is in rapid decline – so much so that at the end of November, the value of sales in the old vinyl format surpassed those of digital in the UK over a week, by £2.4m to £2.1m. At about £20 an album, vinyl sold about 120,000 units, against the equivalent of 2.6m digital tracks costing 79p.
But look more closely and the gap isn’t that big: at 10 songs per album, digital downloads were only the equivalent of 260,000 albums.
So how much longer do downloads have? A few years and they’re dead, says Mark Mulligan, music analyst at Midia Consulting: “It’s going to die before the CD. The CD has a fairly universal player, where there’s always at least one in a house. And the people who grew up buying CDs are the older music consumers – the CD will literally die out only when they do.”
Downloads outsold physical formats for the first time in the UK in 2011, when streaming services were in their infancy. But even by 2014 they were falling, from £397.3m the previous year to £338.1m, while streaming grew to £175m. That trend is continuing.
Apple still controls the digital download market, with about 65% to 70% of the total, says Mulligan: he suggests that the death knell for downloads will come with a redesign of the iTunes app interface that de-emphasises downloads in favour of the Music subscription streaming service. “Last year downloads declined by 16% in nominal terms,” he says. “This year they are tracking to decline by between 25% and 30%.”