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Where'd the music go?

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Analysis part II Australian lawyer, academic researcher and music industry commentator Alex Malik presents the second of a two-part look at the Australian market for digital downloads. His research has found that while IFPI are spinning the success of authorised downloads, the reality shows that at least in Australia, there are substantial gaps in available repertoire and a heavily protected market controlled by the majors. He can be contacted at Alex.Malik@student.uts.edu.au. The first part of Alex's probe is here

Internationally, most if not all popular songs are available as digital downloads. In the US, Billboard magazine's singles chart even looks different – one blacked-out triangle no longer means one million CD singles or 7-inch records sold, but means 200,000 paid downloads purchased. (http://www.billboard.com/bb/charts/hot100.jsp)

Yet in Australia many popular songs continue to be unavailable as digital downloads. Neither of the top two songs in this week's ARIA singles chart ("Crazy Frog" by Axel F, and Akon's "Lonely") are available as paid downloads. Jesse McCartney's recent #1 song "Beautiful Soul" was also never available as a paid digital download. Other songs unavailable from one or more websites include hits by Australian artists such as Tammin Sursok (from TV's Home and Away), the Rogue Traders (with their #1 club smash), and Ricki-Lee Coulter, as well as international artists such as Missy Elliot, Fat Joe, and Kelly Osbourne.

Examining at the two leading Australian download sites, 36 per cent of the songs in the current ARIA top 50 singles chart are unavailable for purchase from the Bigpond music download site, while 40 per cent of the top 50 songs are unavailable from the HMV/Ninemsn digital download site. Record companies who own the copyright in these sound recordings can't or simply won't license these songs to the digital download sites.

The popularity of digital downloads is measured in official download music charts. In the UK the chart is known as the The Official UK Top 40 Downloads and in the US the leading download charts are the Billboard "Hot Digital Songs" and "Hot Digital Tracks" charts. In Australia, there is no official download music chart, and no indication when one will be introduced, although the matter has been discussed for some time.

Australian consumers enjoy visiting websites like Bit Torrent and Kazaa. While the idea of a free lunch is appealing, it's not just the lure of free music that attracts consumers to these sites... consumers enjoy downloading music straight onto their computer so they can play it on their iPods and other digital music players. Yet despite the popularity of this technology, Australian record companies refuse to allow many of their hit songs to be licensed to be sold as digital downloads on so-called "authorised" websites.

In Australia, major record companies claim to have supported the set up so-called "legitimate" alternatives to Bit Torrent, Kazaa and Grokster. Yet despite this "apparent" support, the Australian market for digital downloads lags far behind international markets for digital downloads. Australian consumers can't legally get the music they want in the format they want, and often pay too much for legitimate downloads.

In many cases consumers have no choice but to turn to illegal means to obtain their music... all of this because the majors have chosen to not be fully supportive of the Australian digital download market.

Why are some record companies reluctant to support the digital download market?

  • A lack of understanding of their target demographic?
  • A fear of new technology?
  • Licensing problems?
  • A refusal to accept new business models?
  • Simple business conservatism?

When in doubt I always revert to the classic multiple choice answer... all of the above. It's a pity... with apologies to Bobby Vinton, Akon, Schnappi and Crazy Frog, they are not high art – they are somewhat disposable items and right now in Oz they are hotter than a roo on the barbie! Next month it'll be something else – maybe dancing lizards or rapping cockatoos. In the meantime, Australian record companies are simply alienating would-be customers by not making hit songs available as paid downloads.

Now there's a new concept... record companies alienating their customers! ®

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