Friday, January 2, 2009

No Surprises

Ben Sisario closed out 2008 at The New York Times with one last hand-wringing article about the sad state of the music industry:

Total album sales in the United States, including CDs and full-album downloads, were 428 million, a 14 percent drop from 2007, according to data from Nielsen SoundScan. Since the industry’s peak in 2000, album sales have declined 45 percent, although digital music purchases continue to grow at a rapid rate.

What's interesting in that is its emphasis on albums. Until the Beatles, single tracks (in the form of singles) were the primary form of artistic expression, and even after the growth of the album as artistic unit, there was still a substantial market that only wanted the individual songs they knew they liked. The increase in downloading and the decrease in album sales - whether for physical or mp3 albums - doesn't mark anything more or less dramatic than buyers resisting the industry's efforts to force them to purchase the more expensive item and buying the music they actually want.

What's interesting and sad is the lengths people will go to force people to buy albums. Kid Rock found an audience with "Bawitdaba" and "Cowboy," but he's decided that Rock N Roll Jesus must be purchased as a whole and not through iTunes. AC/DC made the same decision with Black Ice, selling it exclusively through Walmart. Both have sold well - Black Ice was the fourth best selling album of the year last year - but if sales of single tracks were bundled and considered albums, a number of downloaded artists sold as well. According to's "Digital Downloads Death Knell to Artists?":

However, Kid Rock and AC/DC alone do not tell the entire story. For example, this year's best-selling album is Lil Wayne's "Tha Carter III," which sold 2.7 million copies. Digital music sales played a significant part in the success, with Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” single selling more than 3 million copies. Cold play’s "Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends," the year’s second-best-selling album, sold more than half its 1.9 million units via digital services.

Digital stores also helped Leona Lewis single "Bleeding Love” become the best-selling digital single of the year, having sold 3.3 million tracks according to Nielsen SoundScan. The single is part of the album "Spirit“, the eighth-best-selling album this year with 1.2 million copies sold. Of those, 140,000 were digital sales. Counting every 10 tracks as an album, Lewis' sales rise to 1.5 million without considering sales of any other singles from "Spirit" – a number on par with AC/CD and Kid Rock.

Atlantic Records' attempt to force downloads to Estelle's "American Boy" to translate into stronger album sales failed miserably. It was a top ten download at iTunes, but sales of the song and album declined when the song was pulled from iTunes by the label.

The question the industry should be trying to solve is how to construct business models that value singles sales again. The question they've been trying to solve instead is how to get a piece of every end of an artists' income including live show and merchandise money. It's no wonder the industry's in such bad shape.

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