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The Rise and Fall of Physical Media, or the Music Industry in 40 Seconds

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From Digital Music News, an animated GIF showing how people have purchased and listened to music over the last 40 years. The numbers are based on RIAA revenue figures starting in 1973 and continuing through 2012.

If you look at the original post, you can view each slide one at a time. It’s hard to believe that in 2002 CDs represented 95% of all music sales—records barely even registered then. And though we read that vinyl sales are ever increasing, in 2012 LPs and EPs accounted for only 2.3% of the industry’s revenue. One thing these pie charts don’t show us is how much the entire pie has shrank since 1973. If you want info on total dollars, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

I do wonder how these numbers fit into overall music sales and listening habits. I don’t know, for instance, how the RIAA collects this data, nor do I know who contributes the information. I’m guessing some of my favorite labels aren’t represented, and so whether or not they’ve benefited from apparently positive growth within the industry is unclear. This data only gives us an idea of how certain labels and artists might be making money. The numbers won’t line up with everyone’s listening habits, in part because they don’t account for illegal downloads, but also because they don’t show just how much the industry has shrank in the last 40 years. Record sales might be up, but are artists actually making more money? Can they afford to be musicians full time or do they need another job? Do they have health insurance? The numbers are all raw as is, and need to be filled in.

Months ago I went to the record store, bought a handful of CDs and took them to a bar where I could look over the liner notes. The bartender remarked about the CDs, saying that she never saw anyone buy them anymore. When I asked her how she got her music, she said she used iTunes most of the time, but that she also downloaded music and listened to streaming radio.

At Boston College I often got the same response: students downloaded music, listened on their iPods, and generally avoided records and CDs. There were students who wanted to DJ at the college radio station but who had never touched a turntable. Many of them didn’t understand why the record player had to be grounded; some couldn’t even operate it properly and chose to shun the record library because the spinning platter presented too many queuing difficulties.

Revenue numbers clearly show more people are buying records—at least, records of a certain kind—but who are they?

I can find articles documenting the LP’s small resurgence, but I can’t find anything that breaks those consumers up into age groups. Many of my friends, between 28 and 40-something, still buy albums from to time to time, even if they are using other services like iTunes. The people I know who are younger, many of them in college, have an almost completely digital collection. How much of it was purchased is another question.

I wonder if the supposed hip, young new audiences I read about aren’t just a fiction sold by an industry hungry for good news. But I’d love for it to be true. Anyone with some solid information about who is buying music should leave a comment.

Looking at that 2012 data, I see that the CD still brings in close to 36% of the industry’s revenue—that’s almost as much as downloaded singles and downloaded albums combined—but I also notice that, as CD sales shrink, revenue from streaming and subscription services continues to grow; up 3% from 2011.

I’m inclined to think these services will continue to grow and become more popular, especially with companies like Apple and Twitter investing a lot of money into new streaming platforms. But I have almost zero faith in them because, even if they help the industry make money, they’re not very likely to help artists. I’ve posted about those services before, but I still think Damon Krukowski’s article for Pitchfork is one of the best places to go for a reality check. According to him, the sale of 1,000 7″ singles made his band more money than over 13,000 plays on Pandora and Spotify. How are these services supposed to save the industry if they can’t help an artist buy groceries for the week?

Until I see downloads and streams generating as much profit for an artist as a limited edition 7″ single, I’ll be skeptical of their ability to help anyone but CEOs and investors make a living. Compact discs, vinyl records, and generally material media are still the best way to support songwriters and performers. And while it’s exciting that so much great music has become more readily and easily available, it’s discouraging to see that same availability eating away at the income of touring, hard-working musicians who actually give all their time—some of them their entire lives—to a craft that they love.

Despite increased sales and a generally hopeful attitude, I think we still have to ask the questions David Lowery asked NPR’s Emily White:

“Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself? Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?”

Author: Laughter

I like music and philosophy. And baseball.

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