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Physical Attraction

Date: 20th August 2015

Physical Attraction

With rumours that the new Apple Music streaming service has hit ten million subscribers in the first four weeks of its launch, this is probably the time to be celebrating the beginning of a new epoch in the way we buy and use recorded music. After all, Apple CEO Tim Cook recently told investors that “millions and millions” have signed up for the company’s three-month trial. Indeed, it is believed that the company envisages a dizzying 100 million paying subscribers, by the time the platform has matured.

Factor in the enduring success of Spotify, which boasts about 20 million paying subscribers and 75 million active users – not forgetting Pandora’s 80 million – and you have a clear trend. Yet even if Apple’s figure proves optimistic, one would still think the writing is on the wall for old fashioned physical media. After all, most manufacturers of Compact Disc players have long since popped the champagne corks. The overall trend is down, in almost every country in the developed world.

Does this spell the end of that lovely ritual of frequenting music shops, browsing through the racks and pondering which discs to buy? Will we soon miss that heady sense of anticipation break open the cellophane wrapper to the distinctive smell of the freshly printed inlay card? Are the days of dropping the CD into the disc tray and pressing ‘play’, nearly gone?

If you believe most people who opine on the subject, then the answer is surely yes. There are statistics to back this up too, with plenty of apocalyptic looking graphs plummeting downwards, faster than the fuel gauge of a Bugatti Veyron. So a new study by Havas Sports & Entertainment’s FANS.PASSIONS.BRANDS is of real interest. Conducted in conjunction with the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab, it is a truly international piece of market research that surveyed 18,000 people across seventeen countries, including 1,000 from the UK. Fascinatingly though, its findings were that the majority of British music fans still prefer to buy their music in a physical format.

A total of 73% of respondents in the UK said they still purchase Compact Discs, compared to 43% who buy from iTunes, Google Play and Amazon MP3, among others. This figure was conspicuously above the global average of 67%, ahead of France (50%) and the United States (54%). The survey also found that radio remains the most popular way to listen to music in Britain with 68% using their car radio at least once a week. Some 38% listen to home hi-fi systems, with 35% using mobile devices to listen to music and 37% using video sharing sites such as YouTube. Interestingly, just 30% use free streaming sites such as Spotify, which is rather lower than the 49% global average, similar to the US (32%) and way below China’s 86% figure.

This information is interesting from several perspectives. First, the market varies dramatically around the world. Japan, for example, remains a disc-addicted country like no other – with an unusually high and enduring interest in SACD as well as standard Red Book CD. In the UK, another mature music market with a history stretching back well over half a century, SACD isn’t as popular (some of this market is served by DSD from computers) but Compact Disc remains an important music carrier. Britain was an early adopter of computer audio, but British music fans seem to be maintaining their physical music collections as well as building computer-based ones. Despite the obvious improvement in sound quality possible from a computer or network, silver discs still have real appeal due to their convenience. More than ever perhaps, they are cheap to buy and easy to obtain – on sale everywhere from charity shops and eBay to high end music specialists.

At the other extreme, we see China – just over the sea from Japan yet so different in so many ways – which due to its history had precious few LP records on sale (most were expensive imports from Russia), and missed the CD boom of the nineteen eighties. This giant country has moved quickly to streaming, via music downloads. Computers became the default music source, then tablets and now smartphones. The popularity of streaming services like Kugou, Tencent’s QQ and Alibaba’s Xiami and Tiantian mean that this country has now almost completely left physical music media behind.

Of course, the built-in flexibility of dCS DACs means they can support a multiplicity of formats from the past, present and future – lest we forget, the company played a pioneering role in computer audio two decades ago. Yet dCS retains its love of CD, and continues to support with serious replay equipment. Indeed, there’s no better way of hearing this venerable yet popular ‘legacy’ format than via a bespoke dCS transport. It has never been easy making silver discs sound superb, but we remain committed for as long as the technology allows.