The Decline of Music Sales: What’s Really to Blame?


I keep reading these articles about the decline of music sales where some industry person pretty much blames it all on file sharing. The story usually goes, people got a taste of free music and now expect music to be free. Here’s a bit of news for them, there was free access to music way before illegal file sharing rose to popularity.

I was somebody that just listened to the radio and didn’t buy music.The first time I paid for an album was when I was 25 years old. Was it the first album I owned? No. I had a pack of blank cassette tapes, friends would buy an album, I’d borrow the album from them and make myself a copy. There were people who would record radio shows and make a playlist of their favorite tracks instead of buying the singles. In the CD era friends could burn you a copy. If all you wanted was the music you didn’t HAVE to pay for it.

The fact of the matter is that people didn’t just want the music, they wanted the experience which was really about the packaging. We can talk about the attitude people have towards the value of music today, but the attitude people have toward the value of music today is pretty much the same attitude they’ve always had. What’s different is the type of options available.

During the file sharing era, most of the people I knew would download an album and if it was good they’d buy the CD. The CD’s that were burned from digital downloads from file sharing sites were clear silver colored CD-R’s with the album titled usually written in Magic Marker. The same went for CD’s people that bought albums would make as copies for their friends. You compare a CD-R with an album title written in magic marker to an official CD, shrinkwrapped, with a foldout tray, and laminated disc with the artwork on it and it’s like comparing a dollar bill to a food stamp. Everybody wanted the official CD, if they could afford it, they bought it. The experience was so important that many people who couldn’t afford official copies would still fork over $5 for bootlegs rather than duplicate copies from friends.

A guy left this comment on my “View of a Loser From on Top of the World” album on CD Baby:

[quote_center]Who U R is a crazy track and the lyrics to the intro/track 1 it’s all good. I guess [there’s] alternate covers/releases for this album I got this one it’s a slip case so I’m going to buy it again [for] the other version with the whole layout it’s that good.[/quote_center]

I did a show where I burned CD’s from home and wrapped them in construction paper because I couldn’t afford to buy official CD’s. The only way I could sell them was to promise people that bought them that I’d get them better copies later on. If it was just about the music it wouldn’t have mattered because the same song files would have been on either copy.

With digital music we took away not only the physical product but the packaging, and left just the music itself, which was something people never really felt inclined to pay for. Everyday people spend money at stores buying bottles of water when water comes out of their home faucets for free. Baring an extreme drought, nobody is paying for a cup of faucet water. Digital music is like faucet water.

The actions of music buyers today indicate that they don’t feel DIGITAL MUSIC is worth paying for but that’s not an indication of how they feel about music overall. According to IFPI, 2014 was the first year EVER that digital music sold more than physical. This was largely attributable to streaming being that 166 streams is considered a single sale and 1500 streams are considered an album sale. People that buy albums are still more likely to buy a CD or vinyl than a digital download. The BIG issue is that technology no longer accommodates CD’s and vinyl.  

People use digital devices like Smartphones and tablets for mobile access to music, neither of the two have CD drives. CD players are now a specialty item with many brands discontinuing their lines including Sony with its DiscMan. Mac Book’s are no longer produced with CD Drives and other laptop manufacturers are picking up on Apple’s trend. Ford Motors discontinued CD changers for its cars in 2011. Record players are a specialty item you probably won’t find in your local electronic store. Buying physical has become an inconvenience for music fans because technology is progressively phasing it out. I hear people talk of the decline in CD sales as if it’s a matter of consumer preference when it’s more like coercion. As CD sales drop, so do sales overall as people choose not to buy rather than to buy something they don’t want.

It’s like going to a restaurant that doesn’t serve the food you want to eat. You’re not going to buy a meal you’re not going to enjoy just so the restaurant can stay open. You might eat there if the food is free but if you’re paying you want value for your dollars. A restaurant can’t say you think food is worthless because you won’t buy the food THEY sell.

How can we say that consumers don’t value music when, according to statista, in 1990 there was 1 Billion dollars in concert ticket sales and in 2014 there was 6 Billion. In 2013 concert attendance skyrocketed up 23% with a slight drop off of 1.5% in 2014. These types of numbers don’t support the idea that music fans don’t value music or aren’t willing to pay for music.

Just as technology is phasing out the sale of physical music it’s also beginning to phase out the sale of digital downloads. To blame the decline in digital sales to the rise of streaming doesn’t really tell the whole story. Today we have this exodus toward mobile. For a lot of people their phone is the first computer they own. Cell phone companies give away smartphones to customers willing to sign a new contract. Low end Cell Phone providers like MetroPCS sell them for as little $30.

On mobile devices people find themselves with unlimited entertainment options. They can hangout on Facebook or Twitter, watch videos on Youtube, Watch tv shows using the app of their favorite channels, read books through the Kindle app, play games, and more. While they have unlimited options, they don’t have unlimited space. Digital downloads force them to choose between their favorite apps and their music. Streaming platforms prevent them from having to make that choice because they have access to all of their songs without each song file eating up space on their device.

People were always willing to pay for music as a physical product but that’s being phased out. What we’re being left with is digital files which is just the music that we’ve always passed back and forth to each other freely. The main selling point of digital song files, convenience, has been destroyed by something way more convenient, streaming!

People paid for the convenience of carrying hundreds of songs on a single device and/or the packaging of a CD or Vinyl record, it wasn’t just about the music. Record industry people want to blame the fans for the perceived decline in the value of music. What about the decline in the quality of mainstream music? What about their failure to innovate and find a way to repackage music in a way that consumers would be willing to pay for? What about finding out a way to monetize the way people are consuming music? No, this is all the fault of the lazy freeloading music listeners wanting everything for free. Yeah, sounds about right.


I Blame You


  1. Absolutely! I’ve been thinking about ( and then ranting about ) this for years – how does the industry not see that this might be a problem on their end? Maybe singles became a thing because great albums weren’t being made? That same single is easier to just checkout on Youtube, which is why you see these numbers that have never been seen with physical releases – people go back to Youtube and play that song again…the experience is there, the interactivity is there, the “scene” is there.

    As someone who came up in the last years of the record store, I remember that feeling of going to stores for a new release. It was genuinely exciting…and a good artist always had packaging that told the story of the record, of the artist at that moment. If you were really into it, you’d read the liner notes to learn who the producer and recording engineers were… My point is the experience of music is a real thing, and until they find a way to translate that to digital in an amazing way, you won’t see the big numbers outside of the absolute top tier of artists working today, imho…


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