Digital Music Makes the Charts More Democratic

Digital Music Makes the Charts More Democratic


by Andrea Ordanini, Dept. of Marketing, Bocconi
Translated by Alex Foti

Music is a consumption domain that has undergone one of the deepest transformations of all industries in the last twenty years. It has progressively changed from an initial condition where music content was embodied in physical goods (vinyl records) which were purchased and owned individually, to one in which the physical support has disappeared and recorded music, now in digital format, is no longer owned by the listener, who only pays for the right of access to a large catalog of music content s(e.g. Spotify).

The phenomenal technological transition of the music market went through several phases over the last thirty years: the vinyl record dominated the production and consumption of music up until the early 1980s, when it was replaced by another physical medium, the compact disc, were the music was stored as digital files. In 1999, the innovation introduced by an American student, Napster, made it possible for users to listen to music for free through the sharing of the music files stored on their hard disks via the Internet.

In 2004, after a long series of lawsuits for copyright infringement activated by the recording industry, a new operator (Apple) entered the market and proposed a legal way to consume and purchase music in a digital format: paid downloads. Then since the early 2010s, as mentioned, music consumers no longer have to buy and download music files, but simply pay for access to individual songs, records, compilations, and enjoy fruition of endless online catalogs without obtaining ownership of content.
This Copernican revolution in music consumption technology has dramatically changed the scenario for record companies. But how has the attitude of companies changed with respect to the "content" of music? In other words, has technology also changed the processes of artistic selection, offer and promotion of artists?

A study focusing on Billboard charts from 1974 to the present day has revealed that the digital transformation introduced at the turn of the 2000s has increased market differentiation in the pop music industry, as reflected by the larger number of songs which made it to the charts in this sub-period. In essence, the advent of Internet technology seems to have increased the chances of success for individual artists, thus “democratizing” popularity to a degree.

The increase in content differentiation has gone hand in hand with another phenomenon, also connected with technological change: the growing incidence of the artistic collaboration known as featuring (feat.), i.e. the rising presence of "guest" artists singing and/or playing in other artists’ pop songs. Still with reference to the US charts, featuring seems to have facilitated the success of a larger number of musicians, and it works better when it combines artists coming from two different musical genres.

Despite signs of greater openness and differentiation generated by the digitization of music, when we repeated the same kind differentiation analysis, narrowing it down to the Top 10 Hits in the Billboard charts, we found there was not same decrease in variance over the period considered. This means that , when it comes to major hits and most popular artists, technology has not fundamentally changed the mechanics of access to pop stardom: the new digital format has allowed a greater number of songs and music artists to enter the market for pop hits, but there has been no equally enlarged access to the top positions of music rankings, which have remained the prerogative of a few big hits by few big stars.

If we wanted to sum up all this in a sentence, we could say that technology has significantly changed music consumption and differentiated the forms of access to the music market, but has only marginally changed the percentage of artists finding success. There hasn’t really been a change of tune at the top of the charts.

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