Historical album sales decline and the false sales spike of CDs

Historical album sales data 1973 - 2009

I can’t find any background detail to these graphs that might explain how the data was collected, but we can make some basic assumptions about the middle of the bell curve here. Namely that the introduction of the CD in 1984 created a false sales spike; we can assume that people who bought a CD player re-purchased a large amount of their existing vinyl album collections on CD. (And for the record, I hate assumptions but as I said I can’t find the data.)

It would be great to be able to look at the sales data for the period 1984 – 1999 broken out into areas such as: CDs as replacements for existing vinyl collections, the effect of the introduction of Soundscan in 1991 on Country music sales over Rock music sales, and the explosion of Hip Hop. Album sales drop off precipitously in 2001 and on and many observers will of course blame the Internet, but other issues were at play.

File-sharing is always rolled out as the reason for the decline in album sales (especially amongst musicians and labels) but I never see much credence around the fact that the Internet allowed music fans to listen first to an album (without downloading it that is..) and maybe, just maybe, music fans were able to say to themselves, “nah, that’s not doing it for me, at least not for $18.99.” And if some other factors were put in place, such as demographics, the Baby Boomer generation, the rise of massive stadium tours by older bands, MTV etc, and what effect those factors had in skewing sales that may not occur today, we might see a different reason for the sales drop off after 2000.

Whatever the reasons for the sales decline, and there are many, it is clear that the recording industry was hoist by its own petard the day that it introduced that shiny disc packed with ones and zeros. In an age of the personal computer they unwittingly created a new market for music fans, one that was packed with choices. The graph below shows what music fans mostly chose post-2003 – the purchase of single tracks, not to be mistaken with the “Single” which I believe the data in this graph shows. If I’m right, the Single section of the graph should have been two sets of data – one for what we historically have termed “the single” and one for showing the downloading of single tracks..

Even Apple slyly acknowledged this problem a while back with the introduction of a program to encourage those of us who owned certain tracks from an album, (you know, the ones we actually listen to..) to buy the rest of the album at a discount. Yeah, right.

Historical album sales data 1973 - 2009

So, in summary, people like to purchase single songs more than they purchase albums. It also has to be said that ironically people the industry calls “pirates” are the industry’s largest audience for digital sales – 2009 link2003 link. I saw data to this effect when I worked at Intel during 1999 – 2001.

I doubt we will ever see a return to the glory days of music sales as seen in the middle of that bell curve above. Music is consistently discounted and cheapened by the recording industry – think Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody who offer free or cheap streaming of music, and think Amazon where labels routinely offer $3.99 – $5 MP3 albums (Lady Gaga’s latest was $1.99.)

There was also the little problem of the RIAA, the enforcement arm of the Recording Industry, suing its own customers. Smart move.

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

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