I have about 550 CDs at home, proudly on display in the family room on IKEA shelves, alphabetized from ABBA to Yes (I never was much of a ZZ Top fan). I remember when I bought the first one, in 1988, even before I had a CD player, excited about the future but a little disturbed that all my vinyl albums were becoming obsolete. Today, I face a future that may soon render all those CDs obsolete as well.

Music delivery over the Internet is radically changing the way we listen and the way we buy.  The same technology that rendered your favorite tunes as digital zeroes and ones so they could be played on a CD has made music almost ubiquitously available. The ramifications are far-reaching, from the soldier in Iraq who can stay connected with his local Christian music station online, to the youth group member whose CD collection contains no CD cases (just silver disks with Christian band names scrawled with a Sharpie), to the newest car stereo's "full iPod docking" capability.

This series will examine the sweeping implications of the Internet on music in general and Christian music in particular. In Part One, we'll look at the phenomenon that rocked the music industry: Napster and illegal downloads, and today's music portability in an iPod world. Part Two will recount the growth and volatile future of Internet Radio.  Finally, Part Three will consider perhaps the most tangible outcome of the Internet: the much-debated impending death of the compact disc.

The Effects of Napster and iPod

Two new additions to today's dictionaries have played a pivotal role in taking music off the disc: Napster and iPod. The history of the former is a lesson in legality and morality. The latter is lauded for both design and marketing simplicity. Both have played an unquestionable role in getting more music to more people in more ways than ever before.

I recall Napster's icon—that strange little headphoned cat—popping up on so many desktops at the office in the first part of this decade, and I confess to signing in and downloading a handful of songs, at no cost, before the pangs of conscience won out. For many, Napster still represents an alphabet soup of peer-to-peer file sharing services that have been targeted by the music industry as public enemy number one: illegal downloads. "File sharing" sounds innocuous enough, but the fact remains that many Christians click on illegal downloads and rip CDs just like their secular peers, despite the dubious morality.

Article continues below

For their part, the Gospel Music Association has attempted to build awareness of both the ethical and financial implications. President John Styll reports on the progress: "I have to believe that our efforts to educate and counter the effects of illegal downloading and CD burning/ripping have had some impact, but it is difficult to measure. More people are now aware that it is illegal and wrong, but behaviors have not changed much. Overall, the record business has lost billions in revenue the past five years." (In 2005, Christian Music Today reported on the GMA's anti-piracy campaign here.)

Following a lawsuit that made headlines in 2001, Napster is now a legal subscription service, and I've since deleted or purchased those songs I downloaded. My experience mirrors a defense many have used to rationalize illegal downloads: they give people a taste of a certain artist and hope that, if that taste is palatable, a legal purchase will follow.

But it's not turned out that way; illegal downloading is still rampant, especially on college campuses. For example, the music industry sent 37 formal complaints to Purdue University in the 2005-2006 academic year, and 1,068 the following year. It got so bad that university officials met with students about the problem, and the possibility of lawsuits from the Recording Industry Association of America.

Give, and Ye Shall Receive

Some artists and sites have used creative delivery methods to remove the ethical conundrum by giving music away, free and legal. MyFreeMusicFriday, for example, seeks to build artist exposure by giving away sample song downloads from Christian artists every other week.

Last year, Derek Webb took that concept further, testing a radical business model by giving away his entire CD Mockingbird online in exchange for e-mail addresses. "I feel like a great record is its own best marketing tool," Webb said, "and making a great record available for people who would love it is the best way to go. We asked for a minimal amount of information, and we asked them to tell at least five friends, and we though that was a pretty fair trade."

Webb said the idea worked so well, that all of his albums—including Mockingbird—showed sales spikes in retail. "I ended up selling more records because more people were hearing about the records," he said. "At my live shows, almost twice the crowd was coming. The reason is because of exposure." Webb and his colleagues have since established NoiseTrade.com in an attempt replicate Webb's experiment for other artists.

Article continues below

While Webb's experiment showed that giving away music can improve sales, Apple's iPod and iTunes, among others, have learned that many of the same people who were illegally downloading music would actually pay for it—one song at a time. Perhaps the demand for single songs, rather than free music, drove many to illegal download sites.

Over two billion songs have been downloaded legally on iTunes, and the iPod is now a cultural icon. Earbuds are a standard sight on city streets, and one's entire music library can fit in a tiny, simple, and portable device. The iPod nano that fits into my shirt pocket, though already a "generation" behind current offerings, is a marvel compared to the first iPod. In fact, it's almost quaint to watch Steve Jobs introduce Apple's new gizmo at a 2001 meeting, where he touted iPod's small size and features. "An iBook is really portable, but this is ultra-portable." The 6.5-ounce iPod announced that day held 1,000 songs. Today's lighter, thinner iPod holds 20,000 songs.

And there's plenty of Christian music available for such devices. The GMA's Styll says, "Legal download services such as iTunes have embraced and included Christian music in their offerings. So for the most part, Christian music has risen to the digital challenge to make the music available to everyone who wants it in digital form."

TobyMac took such notice of the digital music revolution that he titled his latest CD Portable Sounds. In a recent podcast, he said, "The thought was, in the midst of everything the world is throwing at you, you have this music that people are taking everywhere with them, running with it, on the airplane, even in the cubicle at work." TobyMac calls them "portable sounds to lift us up, portable sounds to take us higher."

Whether they're delivered to a laptop in a warzone or a kid on a bus, many in Christian music hope they find their audience and take them higher.

Next week: Part Two, which covers Internet radio and podcasting, and the threats that might take your favorite online radio station off the air.