Decline of the Album?

I’ve been reading a book called Appetite for Self-Destruction, about the music industry and the CD age. It makes an interesting juxtaposition to this Guardian article, which reports that album sales in the U.S. have hit an all-time low last week. Because one of the things the book makes clear is that the music industry has been through all of this before: sales hit a huge slump in the late 70s and early 80s with the decline of disco, and the music industry was largely rescued by the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the introduction of the compact disc.

The article seems to blame the current slump on streaming services and fickle audiences, although it does give a nod to “fragmenting of genres, the poor quality of music and shopping chains carrying a limited selection of discounted releases to bring in customers.”

Looking at the Billboard chart for this week, I have to say that I think the current dip in sales is an entirely reasonable audience response to what look like a fairly lackluster set of releases (although I’ll confess that I haven’t heard most of them). But even if you take out those ups and downs, I suspect that the music industry has every reason to be alarmed about the overall downward trend in sales.

Whether artists and music listeners have reason to be worried is another question. Personally, if the “music industry”, in the sense of the large record labels who spend enormous amounts of money marketing largely pre-fabricated musical acts, vanished tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t notice. But I do want to be able to listen to the music that I like, I want the artists who make that music to be paid for it, and I want to be able to see those artists perform live. All of this requires an industry, or at least an infrastructure. If the current one is dying, what is the new one going to look like?

Music streaming of some kind is clearly going to be part of it. It appeals to casual listeners, who don’t have to go through the hassle (for them) of actually owning music to listen to it, while for diehard fans like me, it’s a great way to browse and discover new music to add to our ever-growing collections.

However, I do think that the focus on streaming that you see in this Guardian article (and others on the “decline of the music industry”) obscures the importance of another trend, which is the ability of artists and labels to market directly to fans in ways that aren’t tracked in traditional sales charts. Just as an example, if we look at the last 10 albums added to my iTunes library, here is how they break down by purchase method:

  • Pledge reward for an Indiegogo, Kickstarter, or PledgeMusic campaign: 2
  • Download from Amazon: 2
  • Purchase from band or label bandcamp store: 3
  • Direct download from band website: 1
  • Purchase from indie label online store: 2

Of those, I’d guess that only the Amazon purchases fed into any kind of official “industry sales data”. (Possibly the direct-from-label purchases did – I don’t know.)

So, are we headed for a future in which bands and/or small record labels market directly to fans using sites like bandcamp or crowd funding campaigns? Probably. Will this help artists earn a sustainable living? I think it’s too early to say. I’m optimistic. Crowdfunding campaigns, in particular, allow artists with small but enthusiastic fan bases to capitalize on that enthusiasm. Look at Obituary’s recent Kickstarter campaign, where they raised more than $60,000. How many death metal bands typically get a $60,000 advance to record an album? Not many, I’d guess.

On the other hand, I do wonder what will happen with crowd funding campaigns once the novelty wears off. Does every band have what it takes to create a realistic budget for a project, put together an appealing campaign, and follow through once they’ve got the money? And can an artist who has successfully raised money for an album using these methods keep going back to the well for a second, third, or fourth album?

Anyway, I’m curious to hear from readers and listeners out there. Do you still buy and listen to albums? Do you buy music at all, or have  you shifted over to streaming services? Do you pledge to crowd funding campaigns? Do you buy music from bandcamp?

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