The Day the Music Died

If you scroll through the Industry label on this blog, you’ll see a series of musings / rants that I posted, mostly fairly early on in the life of the blog, beginning with my creatively named State of the Industry Address, back in 2012. For a long time, I’ve been meaning to put some kind of post together to summarise the findings.

That was just over five years ago, and as my annual sales analyses (also under the same label) have proved, the “industry” has changed fundamentally in that time. Back in the 1980s, as you may remember, record labels could pretty much throw anything out, and it would make the charts in one form or another. Then CDs came along, and they were able to go round reissuing everything, so silly suckers like you would buy them again. Then, about 15 years later, they discovered that the original CDs weren’t that well mastered in the first place so you had to buy them again, now as a remaster, which might come in a nice big boxed special edition, or it might just be the same as the original, only a lot louder.

But in the 1990s, the music industry started to limit itself in bizarre ways – they changed the chart rules so that the number and contents of formats were limited, and tried to kill the remix at a time when it had become one of the most creative elements in music. They tried throwing more formats at us, to see if they could change the way we listened to music, but we didn’t bite.

But by the end of the 1990s, the record labels were being edged out of their own game by technology, and that’s the trend that has dogged them for the last couple of decades. Initial attempts to stamp out illegal copying by adding copy protection to CDs backfired spectacularly.

Then, when sales started to slump, and pretty much every high street record shop had closed, computer games suddenly went mainstream, and VHS finally gave way to DVD, and the few remaining shops started selling them instead.

Nowadays, you’re most likely to stream your music rather than buy it outright, and nobody seems to care about the UK charts since they moved to Fridays, not even Radio 1. And if you’re a total completist, there’s also a good chance that you might be trying to build up a completely lossless music library too. Physical releases still sell, and record companies continue to come up with ingenious ways to sell us the same thing again and again, such as the recent trend of releasing anthologies.

There are positives – many of the most creative record companies are actually still going strong, the music industry is finally bouncing back with increasing revenues, and the cost of buying and listening to music continues to decline (in fact, nowadays there’s a good chance you pay nothing at all). But it’s also fair to say that today’s music business is very different to what it was ten or twenty years ago.

All of the links above will take you to more in-depth pieces that I wrote about those subjects. Happy reading!

Saint Etienne – Continental

Continental isn’t a real album. Not in the sense that anyone thought of it as a studio album when it came out, anyway. Initially released two decades ago this week, but only in Japan, this follow-up to Tiger Bay (1994) compiles highlights from the singles, compilations, and other bits and bobs that appeared during the group’s first wilderness period. But then in 2009, it got a surprise inclusion in Saint Etienne‘s series of deluxe edition albums, so now we get to enjoy it as a real album after all.

It opens with the lovely Shad Thames, a bright and chirpy synth instrumental which hadn’t appeared anywhere prior to this point. If you only know them for their pure pop songs, it might come as a surprise to know that Saint Etienne have a great line in quirky instrumental, sample-based, and also long tracks. It’s a perfect opening track.

Burnt Out Car is next, a fantastic song, and in common with the timeless nature of this album, it did eventually appear as a single, but not until the end of 2009, when it heralded the London Conversations compilation. Here, it’s in its original form which first appeared in 1996 on the Casino Classics collection, mixed by Balearico.

Sometimes in Winter follows, another track that appeared in remixed form on Casino Classics, although this time we get Saint Etienne‘s original take. It’s a sweet slice of 1960s-style pop – the kind of thing the group have a justifiable reputation for being very good at. Then comes Winter Melody, kind of a continuation of the previous track, as it takes elements of Psychonauts‘ remix from the earlier release and stretches them a bit. A slightly odd inclusion, but also very much in line with the rest of this release.

One slightly trippy oddity leads into another, the short drum and bass-inspired Public Information Film, and then comes The Process, which was one of the b-sides of He’s on the Phone, presumably the track that necessitated this compilation in the first place. It’s also the track that comes next, and it’s a difficult one not to love. It’s a Motiv8 production, and his mixes do have a tendency to sound pretty much exactly the same as one another, but this one is pretty much as good as they ever got. You’ll find it very difficult not to sing along.

Side B opens with Stormtrooper in Drag, the cover version which originally appeared a few months earlier on the Gary Numan tribute compilation Random. It takes a lot of inspiration from He’s on the Phone too, with a pulsating mid-1990s synth line in the background and occasional rippling piano, and honestly once you accept that it’s a little bit dated now, it’s pretty great too.

Then things go unexpectedly glam with Star, the first of two tracks here on which singer Sarah Cracknell shares a writing credit with Ian Catt, so it’s probably safe to assume that this grew out of her solo album sessions and then maybe gained a bit of Saint Etienne production along the way. Good, but not really up to the standard of most of the other things on here.

The next pair of tracks consists on Down by the Sea and The Sea, which are pretty much two parts of the same song again. The latter appeared on Casino Classics with a lovely spacious, maritime-flavoured drum and bass remix from PFM, whereas the former is a full, although slightly avant garde, song. Together, they make up around ten minutes of music, a fifth of the entire release.

After several minutes of frantic drumming, we’re left with Lonesome, the second Ian Catt collaboration, and closing track Angel. It’s a slightly alarming change of pace, as Lonesome is largely acoustic pop, but it’s rather pleasant. Then Angel is the Broadcast remix which had appeared already on Casino Classics, which is nice, and very ethereal, but definitely not quite as good as Way Out West‘s version which appeared on the same release.

So Continental may or may not be a real album, and it’s definitely a slightly odd mix of tracks, but it’s also rather good, and is definitely worthy of its insertion into Saint Etienne‘s back catalogue.

The double-disc version of Continental gets a reissue of its own in just a few days, and comes with a bonus disc of early and alternative versions from the period. It will be available here.

Chart for stowaways – 20 May 2017

Here’s the latest singles chart:

  1. Depeche Mode – Where’s the Revolution
  2. Pet Shop Boys – Undertow
  3. Goldfrapp – Anymore
  4. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène (Part 17)
  5. Depeche Mode – You Move
  6. Depeche Mode – Cover Me
  7. Robert Miles – Children
  8. New Order feat. Brandon Flowers – Superheated
  9. Depeche Mode – Going Backwards
  10. C Duncan – Wanted to Want It Too

Sales Analysis – 2016

At some point a few months into each year, I try to go through and look at the headlines of the previous year’s music sales. This is, of course, becoming increasingly inaccurate, as the music business shifts away from an ownership-orientated model to one of streaming, so this piece might need a new name in years to come, but let’s go with it anyway for now…

Industry officially alive again

The recovery period is definitely over – music is officially doing well again. Page 11 of IFPI’s global report shows a global increase in revenues from $14.8 to $15.7 billion. The low point was 2014, when it dipped to $14.3 billion. Which is still a significant drop from 1999’s $23.8 billion, but there are finally some green shoots.

The same table shows that whereas all of 1999’s revenue was from physical sales, just 34% of last year’s came from the same source, with 50% from digital sales (including streaming), and the rest from performances in public spaces and advertising.

In the US, revenues overall climbed by 11%, and globally they climbed by 3.2%. The UK’s growth was more modest, at just 1.5%, apparently more due to the 53rd week in the year than the state of British politics.

Interestingly the biggest growth, for seven years running, has been in Latin America – Mexico saw a 23.6% growth in music revenues.

Albums are dead

When I looked at the 2014 sales figures two years ago, I noticed that albums were in decline, but I had pretty much forgotten about it since then. Now it’s really happening.

The US sold the lowest number of albums ever last year, with just a touch over a hundred million copies sold. Hardly a disaster overall, as more than 208 billion tracks were heard on streaming services, but it’s a bit of a shame for the future shape of music generally.

In the UK, streaming accounts for 36% of all music consumption, and one week in December actually clocked over a billion streams. And that’s not even including YouTube, for some reason (although I’m still dubious about the sound quality, but everyone else seems to love it). Meanwhile, digital album sales dropped by 29.6%, and physical sales fell by 9.3%.

But CD sales aren’t entirely unhealthy – Brits still bought 47.3 million albums on CD last year.

From my searching around, nobody even seems to bother reporting singles sales any more.

Yes, vinyl

Back in 2012, I shared a table of LP sales for the preceding decade or so. It might be worth revisiting that – at the time I wasn’t convinced that they were actually going up significantly. I was wrong.

Year Vinyl Albums Sold
2010 236,988
2011 337,000
2012 389,000
2013 781,000
2014 1,289,000
2015 2,115,000
2016 3,200,000

Yes, that’s definitely what a mathematician might call a trend. Apparently that’s the most LPs sold in a year since 1991. Honestly, though, the list of best selling albums (on the same article) shows that most of them were at least two decades old, so it still seems that vinyl is largely sold as collectors’ pieces rather than a means of listening to music.

Of course, there’s an interesting conflict between rising sales of vinyl albums and the fact that most music is consumed through streaming platforms now. There’s more analysis on that here.

Cassettes are the new vinyl. Sort of.

Everybody knows they sound awful, and hardly anyone has anything to play them on any more, but in the US in 2016, cassette sales grew a whopping 74%, although admittedly to only 129,000. The numbers for the UK don’t appear to be available, although sales of “other formats” (including cassettes, MiniDiscs, and DVD Audio) fell from 84,000 to 59,000.

A UK newspaper which I won’t name here because it’s full of Conservative drivel thinks that cassettes are “a hipster trend too far”. Let’s show them who’s boss.

Now everybody loves Drake

I’ve still no idea who he is, and I’m not sure I need to either. Of the top ten global recording artists (see page 8 of this report), two passed away in 2016.

Also, a lot of people still love Adele too, just like they did last year.

By the way, I noticed that for some reason the official Scottish chart still doesn’t include streaming, and for that reason alone, it is great. There’s some interesting discussion on why the UK singles chart has become so universally hated here.

You can read this article’s predecessors here: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012.