Fans Not Only to Blame for “Music’s Lost Decade”

In a article last week, they called the oughts “Music’s lost decade,” citing the meteoric decline of sales during the ten year span. Between 1999 and 2009, music sales went from $14.6 billion, to $6.3 billion; a decline of over half.

Of course the main cause cited was people downloading music illegally, and the slow transition of the music industry from hard copies to digital downloads. Without question, this is certainly a factor in the decline of revenue, but really is this the only cause, or even the main cause?

Since sales have been declining 8% annually, the scapegoat for the music industry has been the dirty illegally downloading consumer, but a study by the British group Forrester Research at the end of last year paints a different picture. As reported by UK’s The Independent:

“People who illegally download music from the internet also spend more money on music than anyone else . . . The survey found that those who admit illegally downloading music spent an average of £77 a year on music – £33 more than those who claim that they never download music dishonestly. . . “The people who file-share are the ones who are interested in music,” said Mark Mulligan of Forrester Research. “They use file-sharing as a discovery mechanism.””

And nobody is asking why these consumers are so willing to steal their music instead of paying for it. Few fans care about propping up the corporations that distribute music, but do want to support the artists themselves. The common perception is that when music is purchased, very little if any of the money actually goes to the artist, not only prompting consumers to wonder why they would pay for the music in the first place, but also painting major music labels with a bad brush, like they are making money off the hard work of the artist, but giving very little of it back. Then there’s the stories about major labels manipulating artists’ music.

But maybe the problem is much deeper, and rooted in the lack of variety and creativity coming out of the music industry today, and the recent consolidation in the industries that are meant to promote and distribute information about music.

Radio stations have been consolidated to control cost, driving real live DJ’s underground and replacing them with syndicated national shows or pre-formulated satellite feeds that are voiced over by local “DJ’s” coming in and out of commercial breaks, thus offering little or no locally generated music content. The media has consolidated as well. Many locally-oriented outlets have gone out of business or are facing budget cuts, and the few outlets left rarely dig to find that fresh voice, they want to land one of the big artists that can assure interest by readers.

Bleeding regionalism out of music has meant the mid-size, second tier musician has been squeezed out of the promotion process, and that minor league of musicians where new talent and fresh music perspectives can be found is circling the drain. When combined together, these smaller acts used to generate a sizable amount of album sales. Major movements in music like Grunge, the last significant movement in popular music, started as a regionalized movement that eventually went national and international to boost music interest and sales.

The news that people are spending less money on music is not good news for anybody: the industry, artists, fans, and the overall health of music in our culture. Sure, I think it serves corporate music right that there’s less money flowing into their coffers, but it also makes me worry that music is heading into a dark age, if it is not already there.

Country music isn’t dead. Music is dead, period. And if the music industry wants to find a way out of this tailspin, they have to stop looking at the fans they still have as the ones to blame, and start looking at themselves. Their complete lack of creativity, their insistence on pushing what is safe instead of taking risks on new artists and new movements, their overbearing control of the creative process during recording, and their near puppet-master manipulation of artist’s careers also all has to be questioned.

PS: I have never downloaded even one song illegally off the Internet.

Falling Declining Album Music Sales CNN 1999 2009 Forrester Research