If You Think Modern Music Sucks Blame Illegal Downloading
Many people complain about the decline of music. Every generation does this. Older people assume that the music they loved growing up was superior to what their kids and grandchildren listen to. I think a lot of good music is still being made. However, it does seem to be the case that today's artists take less risks musically. And there's a good reason for that.
Illegal downloading is making music a lot less profitable than it used to be. This makes it hard for artists to take risks musically. With likely lower sales they have to ensure a financial return on the music they do make. This may also explain why some indie or previously nonpop acts have moved toward a more commercial sound. The Black Keys, Tegan and Sara, and Sia are just some acts that started out with a less commercial sound and have moved closer to pop.
Another problem is that many people who do buy music don't buy full albums. They often buy only a few tracks. This is especially the case for younger people who have less disposable income.
Albums Sales Have Declined by 70%
According to numbers from Nielsen SoundScan, album sales between 2000 and 2012 have seen a whopping 70% decline. In the year 2000, the top 200 albums sold a total of 275 million in the United States. The number for 2012 was 82 million. In 2000, the top 10 albums sold 59,200,000 versus 17,400,000 for 2012. That's almost 6 million per top 10 album versus less than 2 million in 2012. Approximately 90% of all songs downloaded are illegal, which explains most of the drop.
In 2012, Adele's album 21 sold 4.41 million copies and Taylor Swift's Red sold 3.11 million. No other act came close to selling even 2 million albums. The 3rd biggest seller Up All Night by One Direction only sold 1.62 million. Adele is a big seller because she has a lot of appeal to the 45+ demographic that still mainly buys CD's. Many older people don't download often because they don't know how. Ten years from now an Adele won't be able to save the music industry because there will be far less web illiterate music consumers. The one bright spot seems to be country music, which likely explains Swift's strong sales.
The Black Keys
Tegan and Sara
The Dangers of Risk Taking
There's less room for risk taking with these declining numbers. Labels make big investments in their artists and expect to see financial returns. This is getting much more difficult as millions of people steal rather than buy music. This creates a situation where labels push their artists toward the mainstream to ensure a financial return. They have to make as much money as possible off the small percentage of people who do buy music.
Two big names in music show the financial benefits of aiming for the mainstream rather than taking risks. Both Katy Perry and Ke$ha had sales of 3 million with their debut albums. Perry started out with a less commercial pop rock sound on her debut album One of the Boys but switched to a largely commercial sound on her sophomore effort Teenage Dream. The album spawned 6 top 10 hits and went on to sell almost 6 million copies worldwide despite only a 52% rating on metacritic. Metacritic is a good measure of how critically acclaimed an album is.
Ke$ha started out more commercial on her debut Animal and companion EP Cannibal. However, she took a less commercial turn on her sophomore album Warrior. The album is about half dance and pop and half rock, country, folk and indie. It received 71% on metacritic, which is very good for a pop artist. But sales have been dismal. Four months after release, the album only has about 300K in worldwide sales although it is doing well in streaming. It's early days and the album could become a commercial success but for now putting music before commercial concerns seems to have been a bad financial move for Ke$ha. As someone said, they knew Warrior wouldn't do well when NPR gave it a good review.
Ke$ha took a less commercial turn on Warrior with songs like Past Lives
Can the Music Industry Be Saved?
Will illegal downloading be the end of professionally recorded music? It's actually possible. Streaming is one bright spot for the industry. Although, it's hard to know if streaming services like Spotify and Mog can become profitable enterprises. They have the same problems music sales have. People have to pay a monthly subscription fee to fully access their services (Spotify is currently free in the United States). The problem is many people will steal music rather than pay a monthly fee.
Another option is to make buying CDs more attractive. Some Asian countries bundle posters, apps, t-shirts and other goodies with CDs to give people an incentive to buy rather than steal music. It seems to be working.
Reducing the price of albums is another potential solution. Rather than making full albums, artists could release lower priced EPs with fewer songs. This may encourage more people to buy rather than steal albums. A solution has to be found because these kinds of continued sales declines could potentially be the end of professionally recorded music.