Senses Working Overtime: is audio the perfect medium for a frantic digital world?
Research The Media's Richard Marks previews 'Audio Time', a new report from RAJAR looking at how the nation's consumption of all forms of audio breaks down by type, device and location.
This Saturday was Record Store Day - an annual event that seems to get bigger and bigger each year, as artists record special limited edition tracks to be released on vinyl and collectors queue overnight for reissues of John Coltrane.
Vinyl clearly is making a comeback, but very much as a niche for the most committed music fans, who are reclaiming the format. Certainly if a physical format for music was to be revived then vinyl records make the most sense. CDs were always hard to love - vinyl offers a more tactile experience and those wonderful 12" covers allow the artwork to breath.
Meanwhile, last week Kanye West's 'The Life of Pablo' became the first US number one album to achieve the position on music streams alone as the charts in both the UK and US now include streaming services in their calculations.
So the timing seems perfect this week for the launch of the findings from the RAJAR Midas Audio Survey, which tracks the UK's consumption of audio in all its forms, including both vinyl and streaming.
The survey uses a similar methodology to the core RAJAR radio listening survey and provides a wider context to the radio listening figures released to much fanfare each quarter.
I have contributed towards the publication of a special report called 'Audio Time', that summarises the main findings and is available for free download at the RAJAR website. Over the last few weeks I've been having a close look through the latest wave of results.
In an average week we spend nearly 26 hours with audio content. In a world dominated by screens, why is audio proving such a robust medium? Video is often seen as the apex of media and advertising, but we also have yet to invent more than 24 hours in a day. As a result we have to juggle increasing demands on our time from all directions.
As XTC once put it, our senses are working overtime to cope and audio is arguably the ultimate multi-tasking medium, freeing both the eyes and the hands for other things.
However, it's not just about multi-tasking. As I have written elsewhere, more and more of our time is spent staring at glowing rectangles of various sizes, so audio also offers a respite, a refuge, a chance to relax and think, to use just one of our senses.
Live radio accounts for 74% of our audio time and reaches 90% of the population - over 48 million adults - across the week. That compares to 6% for on-demand music services like Spotify and Apple Music, which are listened to by 8 million people each week. Here's a key chart from the Audio Time report:
So why is radio remaining so strong in the digital world? Certainly it meets our basic human needs to connect to the outside world, for companionship, information and music discovery.
Radio is also retaining its dominant position amongst audio formats because it has embraced and become part of that digital world - radio has become a cross-device medium.
Radio has always been a highly 'portable' medium since the invention of car radios and transistor radios, through to its availability via smartphone apps. It's is a liquid medium, flowing into and surrounding our every day lives across a variety of platforms: the majority of radio time is now spent with either DAB or streaming radio services.
I would argue that music streaming services are primarily the natural successor to music ownership, as opposed to a direct threat to radio."
Why haven't on-demand music services had more of an impact on radio consumption? It's clear from the RAJAR Midas Audio data that these streaming services are particularly popular with younger adults, but I would argue that music streaming services are primarily the natural successor to music ownership, as opposed to a direct threat to radio.
There have been three important periods of 'disruption' in the music industry - from analogue to digital (CDs) in the 80s, from physical to virtual (MP3s) in the late 90s and now from ownership of music to access via streaming. Each transition has had profound implications for the music industry and artist royalties in particular, but less so for radio.
Whilst there is much debate and angst in the TV world about the impact of VOD on linear TV, radio has always co-existed with on-demand audio. Indeed the invention of the record player actually pre-dates the launch of radio in the 1920s.
So right from the start, radio has always had to 'compete' with listeners' ability to select their own music if they so desire. Radio has always known what makes it distinctive and plays to those strengths. In that sense music streaming is simply the latest in a long line of ways to directly access the music you want.
What does the report reveal about other forms of audio? Well a lot of column inches have been devoted to the re-emergence of Podcasts like Serial but they do remain something of a niche - 7% of us listen in an average week. However, those who do listen to podcasts spend over six hours a week with them.
Looking across devices, digital tracks (i.e. downloaded music) are the most common audio type on smartphones. The survey indicates that streaming of radio or on-demand services on phones may be inhibited by concerns about the impact on data plans and also the consistent availability of a 4G or WiFi connection.
Tablets, despite being in the majority of UK homes, seem to be caught between two stools when it comes to audio - having neither the audio quality of a designated radio set, nor the pocket-friendly portability of a smartphone.
CDs are still hanging on in there, accounting for 5% of our audio time. Despite the resurgence of vinyl, the suspicion remains that the record revival is led by collectors and audiophiles - just 3% of us listen in an average week to vinyl or cassettes (remember them?).
Significantly most new releases on vinyl also feature a download code to allow purchasers to access a digital version. Perhaps this acknowledges that digital remains the most convenient way of actually listening.
Indeed, according to a recent survey 7% of vinyl purchasers don't even own a turntable! Whilst Neil Young argues passionately against digital music, he has dismissed the recent vinyl resurgence as a 'fashion statement'.
For me personally, convenient though digital audio is, nothing can match the sheer thrill of anticipation of the scrunching sound as the needle hits the groove.