I pose the title of this blog post as a question because in researching this topic it is hard to know what to believe. I guess it all depends on who you listen to. According to The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) from their website “Since peer-to-peer (p2p) file-sharing site Napster emerged in 1999, music sales in the U.S. have dropped 53 percent”. [Citation] In another article RIAA states that album shipments in 1973 totaled 388.2 million units. [Citation] Contrast that with The Nielsen Company & Billboard’s 2012 Music Industry Report that states “overall music purchases surpassed 1.65 billion units in 2012” [Citation] and you can understand my confusion. I’m not sure I want the RIAA statisticians working on my books!
In all fairness, a direct comparison is difficult because prior to 1992 the only data that seems to be available is units shipped to retailers and not hard sales data. Since Soundscan began tracking actual sales, the ratio between shipped units and sold units is roughly 70%. In other words, 70% of the units shipped were actually sold so let’s take that into consideration for the 388 million units mentioned above. If the math is accurate and the public’s buying habits have not changed dramatically over the years that 388 million figure is more like 271 million units actually sold.
Putting aside for a moment the actual data, let’s accept the industry’s premise that sales have declined since the advent of peer to peer sharing. I believe the fault is not so much with the buying public as it is with the industry itself. Take Hollywood as an example. If major studios release a bunch of crap, box office receipts suffer and this gives rise to a vital independent film movement. Over the past 20 years or so, movies have become cheaper to make and real story tellers have had the opportunity to make art outside of the constraints of the Hollywood system. The film industry adapted and learned very quickly how to monetize the indie film movement. Why has the music industry been so slow to adapt? My belief is that once accountants and hard core business types infiltrated the music business, their aim was to squeeze every dime from it and as a result the end product suffered. Talk to serious musicians today as I have and the lure of a major label contract is not what it used to be.
Back to actual sales for a moment, I like to make this comparison: In 1971, Carole King released her second album “Tapestry”. By all accounts, it is a great album and within a few years had sold close to 25 million copies. In fact, it is 41 on the list of all time best-selling albums in history. 40 years later in 2011, Adele released her second album “21”. By all accounts, it too is a great album and here two years later has sold about 25 million copies as well. In fact, “21” ranks as number 39 on the all-time sales list. [Citation] It is interesting to note that in the top 50 on the all-time sales list, only 2 were released after 2000 (Norah Jones’ “Don't Know Why” being the other).
My belief is that if the music industry will stop bitching about sales and concentrate on nurturing new, quality artists, sales will follow as Adele has proved. The biggest problem with the music industry in my view is the industry itself.