Not Dead Yet

The site Information is Beautiful did the rounds yesterday (MeFi), and this post of an infographic from the New York Times about music formats piqued my interest. Music sales across the board seem to be falling off a cliff, with the implication that nobody will be buying any music at all in a few years. No doubt the RIAA would blame it all on file-sharing, but there are surely other equally or even more significant factors, some of which the graphic itself suggests.

LPs peaked in 1978, then shared the stage with cassette albums for several years, then cassettes peaked in 1988, then shared the stage with CDs, then CDs peaked in 1999, and now they’re dropping off but there’s no physical format to replace them. But CD sales at their peak were huge compared with the LP and cassette peaks, partly because a lot of people were upgrading their old albums to CD in a way that they hadn’t with cassettes (where you could just buy blanks and tape onto them), which they could afford to do because the West was rolling in cash in the late 1990s.

But there isn’t as much spare cash around in 2009 as there was in 1999, and who would buy downloads to replace their old CDs when you can rip them? Even without file-sharing, those two factors would have driven sales down from the 1999 peak.

Also, it’s much easier nowadays to find a cheap second-hand CD copy of whatever you’re after than it was in the 1990s, thanks to Amazon and eBay. Those sales won’t show up on any of these charts. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, finding stuff in used record and CD stores involved a lot of potluck and dedication; if you wanted to scratch an itch right away, you had to buy it new. Now you can often pay half-price for exactly the same physical product if you’re prepared to wait a few days for it, and that option is open to all sorts of people who would never have set foot in a High Fidelity-style music store.

All of that would explain why new music sales have declined since 1999, but will they necessarily decline to zero? What if CD sales plateau rather than keep shrinking, because there’s no new physical format that looks likely to replace them? (SACD, anyone?) What if digital offerings become more attractive? (Say, by pricing albums at less than ten times the price of individual tracks; when I started buying singles, albums cost just under four times as much, which made them seem like a good deal.) What if music companies figure out how to turn streaming into a revenue stream? Who knows? All that graphic really shows us is that the regular succession of physical formats has been disrupted, and we can no longer take the previous patterns for granted.

18 August 2009 · Music