Jul
9

If Everything Is So Bad, Why Are Music Sales Increasing?

July 9, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  15 Comments

Oh how independent music nerds love to puff their chest out and pontificate about what’s wrong with the mainstream music industry, how it’s creatively bankrupt and was too slow to evolve to the onset of the digital format, and how now the whole industry is on the brink of implosion at any moment, which would be to their little heart’s delights. And meanwhile experts love to tell us how we’re mere months away from music ownership going extinct in favor subscriber and cloud-based formats, how Spotify and other such sites will rule the day.

What none of these nerds and experts seem to be willing to recognizing though (including this one up until recently) is that over the last 18 months, music sales have miraculously pulled out of their nearly decade-long tailspin to stabilize and even increase. And in country music, sales are increasing at a faster rate than the rest of the economy. Sure, we’re still very far away from the glory days of the late 90′s-early 2000′s, but music sales are staging a big comeback, especially in country.

In 2011, overall country music sales were up 4%. Though physical album sales were down slightly, digital album sales saw an increase of 27%. Overall music sales in all genres increased 1.3% from 2010 to 2011, the first time the music industry saw a year-to-year increase since 2004 (See complete 2011 Nielsen music sales figures). Country music sales are doing even better in 2012, increasing 5.6%, or roughly 1 million more units from January to July over the same period in 2011; the biggest increase in all of music. And this is all over a period when Taylor Swift, country’s biggest bread winner and a big seller in pop as well, has not released a new album (her last album Speak Now was released in October 2010). A new Swift release this Fall/Winter can only increase country’s upwards sales trend.

In 2010, we were mere months away from major bankruptcies and massive consolidation all across the music industry. The business was in such a long-trending downward spiral, just to slow the rate of decline would have been a huge success. Brought to the point of extinction, with their backs against the wall, the music industry rallied and began to figure it out. New ways of delivering music to consumers and the digital age will continue to challenge the industry, but those waiting for the fall of Rome shouldn’t hold their breath.

So what happened? How did the music industry right the ship? Here’s some theories:

Understanding Who Still Buys Music

You want to bankrupt the music industry? Teach girls and women how to steal music. You wonder why most of what you hear on the radio sounds like it was written for little girls and their moms? Because it was. Why do you think the last handful of American Idol winners have been cute young boys? Because young girls are the last ones paying attention. By understanding who is still buying music (girls and their moms), the music industry can focus music to them and not waste resources on music that is likely to sell poorly or be stolen by tech-savvy males.

Many Choices in How to Purchase Music

As much as the ability for consumers to be able to purchase digital singles has created challenges for the album format and price points, it also takes pressure off the consumer who don’t have to buy a whole album of songs when they may only want half or one of them. Meanwhile the resurgence of vinyl has increased that album concept’s viability and the price point for physical music, giving consumers many more options for purchasing music than they had in the CD era.

And purchasing music is no longer an arduous chore if you don’t want it to be. You can download a song or album instantly on your phone, have it sync with your computer or MP3 player through a cloud-based format, and still hunt for vinyl for fun when you have the time. Cheap, digital music caters to the impulse buy, and now many times it’s easier to buy it than to steal it. “The masses like crap” is how independent music fans like to put it, but the practical observation is that busy people are less likely to question the musical choices presented to them through mainstream media. Digital music facilitates this process by making purchasing easy. A catchy song gets stuck in your head from a commercial, so you download it onto your phone on your walk to work in the morning.

Increased Cross Marketing and Royalties

Using movies, TV shows, commercials, sporting events, YouTube, etc. to push singles instead of traditional radio has increased exposure across the board for music, reaching more people, and people outside of the music’s normal demographics. This is also kept up another lucrative revenue stream of the music industry: songwriter royalties. Royalties were one of the few stable elements of the industry during the late-2000′s tailspin. Songwriters and performers and their publishing houses are regularly fetching 5 and 6 figures to have their songs basically promoted on national television or in wide release movies. This is a win-win for the industry and artists.

The Mono-genre

Making music that appeals to the widest possible audience is the best way to increase sales. The biggest selling single in country music in 2011 was Jason Aldean’s country rap “Dirt Road Anthem” that just went triple-platinum last month. Taylor Swift already has a huge base in country and pop, and she just cut a hip-hop single with rapper B.o.B. Lionel Richie has the best-selling “country” album so far in 2012, selling a whopping 912,000 copies, 300,000+ copies more than the second-best, Carrie Underwood’s Blown Away. Break down distinctions between genres and you eliminate barriers to sales potential.

Substance

2011′s biggest seller was Adele, an artist many music critics and fans agree brings substance to her music. Many independent music fans may not want to admit that mainstream music is getting better (and the term “better” depends on taste), but what can be said for sure is that the music industry is making music with greater appeal, and judging from Adele’s success, part of that appeal is based on substance. The idea that all corporate music is crap has always been unfair, and may be slowly become outmoded as the industry re-introduces substance to attempt to reintegrate disenfranchised consumers.

Increasing Immigrant Population & Lower Income Access

Latinos continue to be the US’s largest-growing demographic, and they are more likely to purchase their music in the more traditional, ownership-based or even physical formats. Much of American music is new to them, and as they assimilate their music tastes with their native music, they purchase current hits and backlist classics as they are presented to them through popular media. The cheaper music and music delivery devices have become (you can store music on the phone you’ve already purchased), the more accessible it has become to lower income demographics who used to rely on radio to get their music.

Why Is Country The Fastest-Growing Genre?

It’s not because more people love country music, it’s because the amount of music that is flying the country flag is increasing. Music that used to be considered mainstream rock, pop, adult contemporary, etc.,¬† is now coming to country to seek support in the form of radio play and award shows. Lionel Ritchie’s Tuskegee became a huge commercial success partly because of the hour-long special the Academy of Country Music (ACM) put together and broadcast on CBS as part of their 2012 Awards season.

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From a business standpoint, the music industry and major labels weathered the storm, and are now retooling with the wisdom that they are not bulletproof, and must adapt with the times.

15 Comments to “If Everything Is So Bad, Why Are Music Sales Increasing?”

  • The easiest that I can suggest to America’s music industry is, stop selling craptastic music.

    And actually at the Substance point, it should be more specified that people love music about heart-break songs. When they can feel sorry for themselves. If people do buy music with substance, then why was Fiona opened with a lower number than Justin Bieber?

    We still have a long way to go, Trig. But it’s the first step nonetheless.

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    • I agree there’s a long way to go. But I think it’s pretty interesting that an artist universally-recognized for having substance (though I’m sure there’s Adele detractors out there) was the best-selling artist in 2011. The music business is very copy cat. Hopefully the copy Adele’s success by looking and promoting more artists with substance. Baby steps are better than backsliding.

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      • Tbh with you Trig, on my last visit to UK last month, everyone was sick of her. It’s just weird that US is still going Gaga on her. And are you sure the US will copy the UK? US mainstream music scene has always been a late bandwagoner (See: EDM & Alternative/Indie).

        Also, Adele has James Bond song in store (Q4). Looks like she’s gonna release a new album too late ’12/early ’13. Like Taylor, she likes to release a new one every 2 year.

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  • I remember that Adele expressed some interest in makeing a country album a while back. Do you know if anything is coming of that, because that is sonething I might actually get. I would honestly have more hope in a country album her than any other top 40 singer, and that includes Taylor Swift/

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    • Haven’t heard much about it aside from the original Guardian story.

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/aug/05/adele-country-next-album

      Could be more of a flashy headline than an actuality. She could just make a roots-based album. Last thing I heard about Adele is she had a baby, so my guess is music will be on hiatus for a bit.

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    • She did have the civil wars tour with her before

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  • I always enjoy reading this site, particularly to get a heads up of reviews of new albums/artists that I might never encounter elsewhere (thanks, corporate radio). But one thing that has always nagged me a little – and it’s mentioned as the last little subsection in this article – is this notion that “too much music gets labeled as ‘country music’ and most of it has no business being labeled as such.”

    I guess I disagree with that a bit. If you go to your local record store (assuming you still have one) you’ll see a section typically labeled “Pop/Rock” or something thereabouts. In this section, you’ll roughly run across (in order): Barry White, Whitesnake, the White Stripes, and White Zombie. Aside from having a little feedback or distortion on a few of these, these albums/artists have almost nothing in common. Yet they are generally labeled as being in the same category.

    To me, this is the same with country music. White Zombie bares no resemblance to Chuck Berry and Rascal Flatts bares no resemblance to Hank Williams. Maybe it’s just because I don’t pay attention to those scenes but I have a hard time imagining that fans of Lamb of God (or some other death metal band) start websites to mock Metallica or whoever as not being real heavy metal. Maybe it’s because it’s tied in an awful lot with geography and regional identity but it seems like country fans (not just this site) love to argue about what’s country and what isn’t more than other genres.

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    • im with you i think theres plenty of room for everyone in country music.

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    • Oh trust me, there are plenty of heavy metal fans who see Metallica as posers.

      I understand what you’re saying. Rock used to be the catch-all phrase for popular American music, which was not all that inaccurate because most of the music fit in the 4/4 time scale and backbeat rhythm that defines what rock is. Now country has become the catch all term for popular American music. The way I iterated this idea here was not necessarily a criticism more as an observation. If more artists representing more styles are calling themselves country, then naturally the sales for country are going to increase, just as they’re going to decrease from the genres they are coming from. I just didn’t want the numbers to somehow tell a story that America has fallen in love with steel gutars and twang all over again, because this is obviously not the case.

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      • Ha ha. Very true comment about Metallica. To my metal-listening friends, “And Justice for All” is the beginning of the sellout discussions.

        As much as I enjoy reading this site (and similar ones), I feel like “Saving Country Music” is kind of not how I see things. I’d much prefer “Promoting Authentic, Unpolished True American Music That Slips Between the Cracks of Music Row and Our Corporate Record Labels” although that’d be a tough URL address. ha ha.

        Brantley Gilbert’s music makes me gag. He’s probably watched more UFC/MMA fights than he has listened to classic country records. But I wouldn’t enjoy his music even if classified as “Rock.” We don’t need to protect some label like “country music.” We need to promote and support those artists that we enjoy that get little/no support from major labels.

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  • Interesting article.

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    • Yup, covers all the bases. Maybe music has become a classless system like Indiana basketball. No real champion, just a lot of playing. :)

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  • A few points. I’ll probably bloviate, but you can always stop reading.

    I think the biggest reason sales are up is the multiplicity of formats. As a card-carrying old fart, it has taken me awhile to adapt. However, in the last month, I’ve bought an mp3 download, four vinyl lps, several cds, and received music via a subscription service. I still prefer vinyl over any of them, for the simple reason that when I’m at work in the studio I like to take a break every twenty minutes and flip over or change the lp.

    I don’t follow new music as closely as I should, but one of the reasons the country format is doing well is Mr. Triggerman’s notion of the mono-genre, which it appears to me is the format much of the new mainstream Country stuff squarely sits in. I’ve felt on the rare occasions that I’ve listened to mainstream country that it has become the album rock of the twenty-first century, bearing more resemblance to schlock like James Taylor and Seals and Croft than Hank Williams or Ray Price (honky-tonk version, natch). I didn’t particularly like Seals and Croft, and I’ve long worried about a nation where the likes of Loggins and Messina were actively encouraged to sing about rock and roll.

    I never saw the music industry as dying, just see it as shifting and changing. Part of it is the mono-genre, but part of it is also the easy availability of so much good stuff from the past that was once so hard to find. Years ago, I spent quite a while looking for Swamp Dogg’s “Gag a Maggot.” Nowadays, I could likely find that album with a five minute web search (being old, I’m also slow) and be enjoying “Wife Sitter” in the comforts of my own home in seconds. As a plus, there are informational sites such as this one where I can find out about artists I might not have found otherwise (see: Joseph Huber).

    The music industry has made ample mistakes over the last twenty years or so, but musicians are still making quality music. The product’s still there– maybe even better than ever– and the means of distribution have thankfully enlarged from the good old record store. Seems to me like a model of prosperity.

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  • ONLY FOOLS MOVES TO NASHVILLE TO WRITE SONGS OR TO PLAY MUSIC..IF THAT IS WHY THEY MOVED HERE, THEY WONT BE HERE LONG..THE REASON THEY COME HERE BY THE THOUSANDS,,IS TO BE IN THE BUISSNESS OF MUSIC. THEY COULD STAY HOME AND WRITE ALL THE SONGS THEY WANT TO.THEY COULD STAY HOME AND PLAY MUSIC ALL DAY AND ALL NIGHT.BUT THERE ARE ONLY A FEW PLACES THEY CAN GO TO.WHERE THEY CAN BREAK INTO THE BUISSNESS OF MUSIC.. THERES AUSTIN,/L.A/NEW YORK/ATLANTA/ECT ALL GREAT MUSIC HUBS,BUT NONE OF THEM CAN TOUCH NASHVILLES .MUSIC ROW.THE FACT IS THEY COME HERE FROM ALL PARTS OF THE WORLD,AND THE LONGER THEY STAY THE MORE MUSIC THEY HEAR.THE INFLUANCES GROW AND SOON BOB DILLON MEETS DEAN DILLON ,THEN WILLIE SINGS WITH SNOOP DOG,KID ROCK MEETS HANK JR.JACK WEBB RECORDS WITH LORETTA LYNN.AND JOHNNY CASH AND HANK SR ARE BEING PLAYED IN PUCK ROCK BARS THROUGHOUT THE WORLD. ….MR PURIFIED COUNTRY DONT YOU SEE WHAT THE WHOLE THINGS ABOUT,THE WORLD’S GETTING SMALLER AND EVERYONE IN IT BELONGS. [willie nelson] THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF MUSIC GOOD MUSIC AND BAD MUSIC.AS FOR COUNTRY MUSIC THE STAR SPANNGLED BANNER IS MY FAVORITE COUNTRY SONG.

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  • I don’t know how a kid can just turn on a radio now and flip through stations in the same way that we did before. I would argue that many of the stations are just filled with so much rawness now. Used to be about lovey dovey stuff more before which admittedly was overkill to say the least and sometimes sickeningly sweet. But unless you don’t mind hearing about how black and hispanic guys proclaiming their manhood which would manditorily often include shooting and killing people, having their way with “sisters”, white women and kinda whoever else happens to on the menu all while self praising themselves on numerous levels. Even a lot of the “songs” that wind up in say the top ten or so are not immune to some the nastiness. Maybe I’m a bit of an over the hill prude here but the material does not lie, and I’m not exactly either.

       2 likes

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