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Album Sales Hit Record Lows—What It Means

Okay, so summer is typically a slow time of year for record sales, but few expected it to be this slow. According to Billboard, album sales have hit a new record low, selling less than 5 million units per week for five weeks straight. This has never happened since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking record sales in May 1991. What is more, the past two weeks in themselves have seen historically low sales markers, with 4.71 million units sold the week ending July 21, and 4.68 million the week of July 28.

This might not mean much to the average music consumer, but to the recording industry it’s just about enough to constitute a crisis. The numbers were already bad, according to the Nielsen Soundscan mid-year report released in early July, album sales were already off 6 percent year-to-date before sales began tanking further. 2013 has seen a total of nine weeks below the five million mark, and for context, when SoundScan started keeping track in 1991, they never had a single week under five million until May 2010. Even digital downloads of singles are down this year. Add that all together, and it comes out to an utterly dismal report, enough to make industry executives start wringing their hands.

Perhaps the scariest part of this for said industry executives is that no one really seems to know why sales are slumping. Different experts are postulating on a few theories:

  • Summer is historically slow for album sales in general. Young people (the biggest demographic of music consumers) are out of school and doing outdoor activities (especially since this summer has been mild for much of the country) so they’re buying fewer records. It just happens to be a slower summer than usual.
  • A particularly weak release schedule. Artists tend to hold their releases for the fourth quarter when sales tend to be better. (As a reviewer, I can attest that the summer releases have been particularly slim pickings this year.) Not enough artists are releasing records that people are interested in buying.
  • A sharp drop in physical CD sales without the digital sales to compensate. Physical CD sales are off over 14 percent year-to-date, with the biggest drop being in older, catalog CDs. Some analysts are going so far as to suggest that this is because the $5 CD price point hasn’t been updated in several months, so consumers are less likely to pick up a deal.
  • Streaming music may be “cannibalizing” album sales. This has been an ongoing fear with music industry execs, and has truly been a point of debate in recent years. Many experts have repeatedly discounted this as a legitimate factor in declining record sales, and it’s difficult to prove because no one has found a way to measure the effects of streaming against album sales. However, given the fact that streaming revenues have been this year while album sales are tanking, it’s got some people revisiting this issue.

What sense do we make of all this? For what it’s worth, my take on it (and it’s only a guess) is that all four factors are contributing to an exceptionally slow summer. As to the streaming music factor, I think it is playing a stronger role than some might suggest. I’ve been saying for some time that this a huge trend marking a shift in how music is delivered, and I’ve been watching with interest to see how factors such as royalty payments to artists are going to shake out.

At the same time, I’m not joining the doom-and-gloomers who say this spells the end of the music industry, or the end of artists’ ability to make a living at it. That’s a very short-sighted approach. People were saying the same thing when stereo music cassettes came out, and it was a simple task to copy music onto blank cassettes. Same when the recordable CD came out. In both cases, the industry adapted and survived. This isn’t a sign of the end; it’s simply a sign of change. And just like with any other season of change, the people who are able to adapt are the people who will rise to the top while the stubborn ones sink to the bottom. My view is that artists and labels alike need to learn to embrace new trends in an increasingly fluid musical landscape, to think outside the box, look for new opportunities, and seize on those opportunities when they present themselves.

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About the Author


David Tillman is an independent composer/arranger whose primary work involves writing jingles for commercials for radio and television, with several film and television placements to his credit as well. David has a fascination for all things related to the music business and the music industry in general, an obsession which his wife finds to be mildly unhealthy at times. His personal tastes in music are in electronica and industrial rock, and include The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk and Nine Inch Nails (he loves that Trent Reznor is writing soundtracks!). When not in his office or in his man-cave, David enjoys skiing, hiking, the occasional game of golf, and sometimes just lounging by the pool. David lives with his wife and three children in Los Angeles, CA.

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