SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, has many proponents across the traditional media world, from Time Warner to the Motion Picture Association. In the music world, it is supported by most major labels and their parent companies, who have been complaining for years that online piracy is the major reason music sales have been declining by double digits for the last decade. At this time last year, it looked like the music industry’s decline had no floor, and we were mere months from massive consolidation, reorganization, and downsizing of the traditional music industry infrastructure.
And then something remarkable happened in music in 2011: sales stabilized, and then slightly ticked up, to the surprise of many who’ve been waiting on the edge of their seats to sound the death knell on corporate music for years. Music sales were up 1.3% in 2011, which may seem miniscule, but when considering their dramatic slide since 1999 and the weak economy on a whole, the slight uptick is nothing less than remarkable.
The music industry deserves credit. It has been my opinion that record declines in music sales have been the fault of the music industry being unable to find and develop real music talent and produce music that engages people, instead of the industry’s scapegoat of music piracy. Though studies have shown that those who pirate music are also some of this biggest buyers of music, the music industry has insisted we need SOPA to protect their copyrighted material and stabilize their business model.
But what the music industry is ignoring, as well as virtually everyone else in the SOPA argument, is this dramatic and unexpected stabilization of music sales. Where did it come from and why? When you dig deep into the numbers there are two answers: women and vinyl.
2011 was the first year ever that digital sales outpaced physical sales, with digital sales hitting 1.27 billion units according to Billboard. Digital sales made up 50.3% of all music sales, while physical sales declined 5% in 2011, but that was in lieu of vinyl having a record year (no pun intended). 3.9 million vinyl albums were sold in 2011, up 1.1 million units from 2010.
Also when scanning through the sales numbers, we see many women at the top of the lists. Adele’s album 21 was the overwhelming frontrunner with 4 million physical copies and 1.8 million digital copies sold in 2011. Lady Gaga had the most digital song streams with 135 million, while Nicki Minaj’s song “Super Bass” was the most streamed song with 85 million. In country, Taylor Swift was right at the top, and in a very unusual move for country, released her Speak Now album on vinyl. And even performers who are not women, like Jason Aldean, whose My Kinda Party was the best-selling country album of 2011, score very high with the female demographic.
One of the reasons that women, and acts that appeal to women and girls are so high on the sales charts is because women are just significantly less likely to steal music as a practice, and they buy more music than men. As I alluded to in my Six Pop Country Archetypes article, whether it is technological ignorance, convenience, or some more fundamental natural propensity of females to support artists and the industry by buying instead of stealing, women and girls are the demographic propping up the music industry right now.
With SOPA suffering serious public relations damage at the hands of a historic partnership of America’s largest internet companies banding together to defeat it, there is a good likelihood the legislation will either not pass, or if it does, will have been so diluted it will have no real teeth. Instead of the music industry treating this as a setback, they should take a step back and see what worked for them in 2011. For every problem the capitalist marketplace makes for itself, there can be an equally-promising solution that does not have to involve government intervention.
Like the “slow food” movement sweeping America right now, the old model assuming that Americans only want things that are cheap and fast may be eroding. Cloud-based networks and digital albums have made music more convenient, but as this article pointed out more eloquently than I could, people still want to own something physical, and vinyl fulfills that even better than the CD.
And though the Frau has always played second fiddle to the Herr in music, it might be time for a role reversal, as women are proving to be the biggest demographic still willing to pay for music.
Another reason I think sales increased in 2011 is because the industry made an effort to discover what price points the public was willing to pay for music. By reducing the price of digital music, they entice people to pay for it instead of steal it, based on the perception of value and convenience, and increase revenue by volume.
With SOPA crumbling before our very eyes, instead of the music industry looking at everyone else (i.e. consumers, the government) and pointing out what they are doing wrong, maybe they should look at themselves and ask what they are doing wrong. Or even more importantly, with a positive year in 2011 to reflect on, what they are doing right.