Sales Analysis – 2017

Every year, some time before we’re half way through the year, I try to take a quick look at the health of last year’s music industry. The wait is intentional, as some of the bigger-picture reports don’t start to arrive until April or May. So here’s a look back at 2017.

The music business is pretty healthy, actually

A total of 135.1 million albums (or “album-equivalents”) were sold in 2017, and although I can’t quite make that number add up, if it’s true, that would be the highest number for a decade. Album-equivalents are a bit of a makeshift way of measuring sales, but apparently overall music revenues totalled £1.2 billion, which I think is the highest since 2010, so as with last year, things are definitely on the up.

Globally, music revenues increased by 8.1% to $17.3 billion, thanks largely to a 41.1% rise in streaming revenues. Which isn’t much compared to the $25.2 billion that were earned at the sector’s peak in 1999, but it’s still the highest it’s been in a long time.

Streaming has got silly now

An incredible 68.1 billion songs were streamed in the UK last year, meaning that on average, each person streamed 1,036 songs. Which is actually mindblowing – on an average day, an average worker, pensioner, child, infant, basically everyone – listened to 2.8 songs via an audio streaming app or website.

Exactly how much longer this can go on for is an interesting one to think about. A normal person surely can’t stream more than about 50-100 songs in a day, and excluding the babies (who are probably streaming nursery rhymes in their cribs, but I like to think the parents have more sense) and the pensioners (who are hopefully still listening to Mantovani on the wireless), surely there isn’t room for streaming to grow much more?

Streaming now accounts for 38.4% of all global music revenue, although in addition to the sound quality being awful, IFPI makes some stern warnings about just how little revenue artists see from video streaming services such as YouTube (which apparently single-handedly accounts for 46% of all music streaming). Video services account for 55% of all music streams, but earn artists less than a sixth of the amount that audio services provide. Which is also pretty dire, by the way.

But nobody buys anything any more

Actually they do, just not very much. That same average person in the UK bought slightly less than 1 physical album last year. CD albums are selling about a quarter of what they sold at their peak in 2004. Global physical sales aren’t in complete freefall, having dropped by just 5.4% last year, but downloads slipped by 20.5%, which proves that downloading just isn’t a thing any more.

And nobody even talks about singles these days – I couldn’t find singles sales reported anywhere.

LPs are selling the most since the early 1990s

It’s really hard to measure because the BPI switched from talking about “deliveries” to “sales” in 2000, but from examining the numbers during the transition period prior to that, typically about half of releases that were delivered to record shops seem to have actually been sold. So with 4.1 million vinyl albums sold this year, I think you have to go back to 1991 or 1992, when 12.9 and 6.7 million records were delivered respectively, to find a total anywhere close to where we are right now.

Worldwide, vinyl now makes up 3.7% of all music revenues, having grown by 22.3% last year.

There’s not even really any sign of the vinyl revolution slowing – while we’re unlikely to ever see the levels of the late 1970s again (91.6 million LPs were delivered in 1976), I suspect we might still be a few years away from the second great vinyl event horizon.

Having said that, people are still buying 10 CD albums for every LP, so it’s still niche right now.

Long live the tape!

Talking of niche formats, as I reported earlier in the year, UK cassette sales in 2017 more than doubled from under 10,000 to around 20,000 (probably), while US sales continued to balloon from 74,000 in 2015 to 129,000 in 2016, and now 174,000 in 2017.

This is obviously great news for anyone who likes really ropey sound quality and wow and flutter.

If you enjoyed reading that, you can also see previous years here: 20162015201420132012. The last few all say pretty much the same thing, to be honest.

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