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!

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.

The Virgin America Safety Dance

I may or may not have mentioned before that I’m lucky enough to live in glamorous Los Angeles. Every once in a while, I have to fly somewhere else for a work trip (believe it or not, this blog is not my day job), and a fair proportion of the time that ends up being with Virgin America. I have no particular allegiances; they just happen to go to the places where I want to go and charge sensible prices.

There is, though, one thing that genuinely fills me with a sense of dread as I head to LAX to fly out, and it’s not the traffic. At some point on my way, I suddenly remember that Virgin America are the ones with that dreadful, awful, appalling safety video.

Introduced four years ago, and praised by people who work in advertising for having been watched by nearly six million non-travellers within the first few weeks (it’s up to two times that number now), it is directed by a director called Jon M. Chu (no, me neither!) and it includes a few Olympians, some people from a TV show called So You Think You Can Dance, and a finalist from American Idol.

The thing is, it’s really, really bad.

I don’t just mean that it’s annoying – it actually isn’t particularly. If you saw it in the middle of the commercials for the Superbowl, you would probably be quite impressed. You didn’t. You were about to take off on a transcontinental flight.

It does have a lot of in-jokes, such as a set of robot dancers and a child with a very deep voice. I’m sure the writers were laughing like crazy, but as passengers we have to watch these people sitting on implausibly comfortable looking seats, with the sort of legroom that even a regular first class flier would dream of. It’s easy to start getting annoyed pretty quickly.

Picture the scene: you have just settled yourself down in the seat where you’ll be spending the next five or six hours, and the aircraft is taxiing to the runway. The child in the seat behind you has just kicked the back of your seat for the sixth time, and on any normal flight, this is the time when the crew would start telling you what to do in the unlikely event of a water landing.

There are rules about what they have to tell you and demonstrate, and the basic principle is that yes, you might have seen it all before, but by reminding you, it’s at the front of your mind if something does happen, and hopefully you’re not stupid enough to try to carry your baggage out during an emergency, or to wear high heels on the chute.

What worries me is that none of that stuff actually comes across in Virgin America‘s video. Sure, it’s flashy and colourful, but having sat and tried to watch the whole thing, I can tell you that you have an exactly zero percent chance of digesting and remembering any of the information in it. It is, bluntly, dangerous.

I think that’s what annoys me. Virgin America has allowed itself to become the victim of a stunt by an advertising agency, and it’s a case where the brand has become bigger than the product.

Or is it hilarious and innovative? Make your mind up from the video and comment below, if you like.

As a footnote, am I the only one who finds themselves reminded of United Airlines at 2:43?

Anthology Season

Logically, I should probably own a few anthologies – I’m the kind of person who would. But, despite having listened to New Order‘s Retro a few times, I remain decidedly underwhelmed by the concept. So this year’s influx of anthologies in our line of music comes as something of a shock to the system, and it’s worth taking a moment to consider what’s actually in them.

Marc Almond – Trials of Eyeliner – The Anthology 1979-2016

Marc Almond announced his first, and it finally enters the shops on 4th November. Here are some quick statistics:

  • Number of discs: 10
  • Number of tracks: 189
  • Retail price: £120

Discs 1-4 are History, a collection of Marc’s favourite album tracks over his impressively long career.

Then Discs 5-7 are Singles, a complete collection of the Soft Cell, Marc and the Mambas, solo, and collaborative hits.

Discs 8-10 are Gems, a set of fanclub releases, collaborations, tracks from soundtracks, demos, and previously unreleased recordings.

You also get a 64-page hardcover book full of photos and images from Marc Almond‘s personal collection.

More details here.

The verdict, for me: you probably need to be a bigger fan than I am.

Erasure – From Moscow to Mars – An Erasure Anthology

Erasure are currently still busy celebrating their thirtieth birthday with some lovely vinyl editions, and also this, released on 21st October:

  • Number of discs: 13
  • Number of tracks: 200
  • Retail price: £80

Discs 1-3 are Erasure – The Singles, another collection of all the Erasure singles. Since we only got Total Pop! in 2009 and another collection just last year, this seems a bit unnecessary.

Discs 4-5 are Erasure by Vince Clarke and Andy Bell, with one disc compiled by each. There are some interesting inclusions, and it would definitely be worth hearing, but probably not one that even the most devoted fan would pick up too often.

Discs 6-7 are Erasure – The B-Sides, an incomplete selection of Erasure‘s b-sides. There are a lot of gems on here actually, and it’s good to see so many of them in the same place at once. Probably worth a listen.

Discs 8-9 are just called Remixes, and are yet another selection of new and old Erasure remixes. There are some interesting looking new ones, such as Little Boots taking on Blue Savannah, but I think you would need to be a completist for this.

Disc 10 has been done before as well – Erasure – Live! is another edited selection of live highlights throughout the years.

Disc 11 is Rarities, some of which haven’t actually been released before, so might be worth the odd listen now and then.

Disc 12 is a nice inclusion, an audio documentary called A Little Respect – 30 Years of Erasure, presented by Mark Goodier from off of the olden days, and with contributions from various contemporaries.

Finally Disc 13 is a DVD release of The Wild! Tour, previously only released on VHS, so probably a nice addition for completists.

Pre-orders also get six unreleased bonus downloads, although it’s difficult to believe there’s anything to write home about among them.

More details here.

The verdict: despite the bargain price, I can’t see a strong reason to buy this one except for the b-sides collection. Hopefully that will come out separately one day.

The Human League – A Very British Synthesizer Group 1977-2016

The smallest of all the anthologies, and probably the one with the oddest artwork (see link below). Released on 18th November, the vital statistics look like this:

  • Number of discs: 4
  • Number of tracks: 92
  • Retail price: £80

There are just four discs on this one, although you do get a 58-page book too. Discs 1 and 2 are the complete collected singles from 1978 to the present, collected for the first time without any omissions.

The rest of the tracks are really just bonus material on a glorified best of. Disc 3 contains early versions of a lot of tracks, although many of them aren’t singles, so this is probably one for fans only.

Disc 4 is a DVD, containing every single one of their promotional videos and a collection of their BBC appearances.

There’s also a triple LP and double CD version containing just the singles, and they’re also touring the whole thing this Autumn.

More details here and here.

The verdict: very tempting, if the price decides to drop to something much more reasonable.

The best of the rest

Also coming out this Autumn are:

Sophisticated Boom Box MMXVI, an enormous 19-disc box set from Dead or Alive, including all the albums as two or three-disc sets, some of which have never actually been released in the UK before, as well as some DVDs and impressive packaging, all for just £118. Definitely one for bigger fans than me, but worth investigating if you’re into that kind of thing.

The Early Years 1965-1972, an astonishing 27-disc set from Pink Floyd, collecting albums, singles, unreleased tracks, singles, videos, and memorabilia from their early years, costing several months’ salary but possibly worth it if you’re an über-fan. More details here.

Depeche Mode take advantage of one of their many years off with a complete collection of videos, Video Singles Collection. This is a three-disc set containing the videos from 1981-2013, including a whole load of material that has never been released on DVD before, plus commentaries. Details here.

Sales Analysis – 2015

This post is a little late this year, but at some point in the first half of a new year, I normally like to take a bit of time to muse over the main headlines relating to the music “industry” in the preceding year. In case you missed them, here are the reports for 2014, 2013, and 2012 respectively.

If you still download music, you’re a dinosaur

The internet transformed the music industry from around 2004 onwards, initially with just illegal downloads, and then, until a couple of years ago, an explosion of legal downloads. That was starting to change in 2014, and by last year, the download was as dead as a dodo.

The number of streamed tracks has pretty much been doubling year-on-year recently, and the trend continued with 26.8 billion streams last year. Audio streaming now accounts for 22.1% of all music consumption in the UK.

I’m a dinosaur, apparently, by the way. There are far too many CD cases in my house already…

Revenues are on the up again

Overall music industry revenues in the UK had been steadily dropping for the entirety of the last decade – sales have continued to slump, streaming hardly contains any money for anyone except the people who make the app, and only live revenues have been increasing in a meaningful way.

This year, for the first time in a very long time, revenues did actually climb by an impressive 3.5%. Which still only puts them back to 2012 levels (that’s barely more than half of what they were in 2005), but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. There’s some detailed analysis and number-crunching here.

Germany, always a strong market, grew by 3.9%, meaning their music industry is now comfortably in third place, with the UK in fourth place, and the USA and Japan in number 1 and 2 respectively. While the Germans celebrate their luck (or happiness), Billboard magazine was rather more pessimistic about the situation in the US.

Everybody loves vinyl

Back in 2012, I questioned the repeated reports of a “vinyl explosion”, as the numbers didn’t seem to back it up. Every year since, I seem to have been proved entirely wrong, which just goes to show what I know. This year saw growth of 64%, meaning it broke the 2 million mark.

Last year’s total (1.3 million) was the highest since 1995, and this year’s is “the biggest for 21 years” (which may mean we’ve now beaten 1995 too).

Having said that, according to a recent Mark Radcliffe show, half of people who buy vinyl never actually listen to it, so the current resurgence may not last forever…

Two-thirds of albums sold are still on CD

Given that the CD format was officially pronounced dead about a decade ago, album sales are still surprisingly healthy. They dropped by just 3.9% from the previous year, which is far slower than it used to be. In fact, I suspect CD album sales are still roughly around the levels they were at in the early 1990s, which really isn’t that bad after all, although it’s difficult to judge, as the only figures I’ve seen prior to 2000 are for “deliveries” rather than sales.

Everybody loves Adele

Adele‘s comeback sold 2.5 million copies in its first 6 weeks, meaning more people bought that album shortly after it came out than bought an LP over the entire year. Yes, apparently she managed to sell 3.1% of all music sold in 2015. Which is quite impressive, to say the least. More on that here.

Understanding that makes it rather less surprising that 13.7% of all music consumed globally is British (I think the article is actually for the preceding year, but the trend is definitely positive), and that 53.5% of music sold in the UK is homegrown. Which is very healthy indeed.

Eurovision 2016 – Part 2

In yesterday’s post, we looked at the two semi-finals, but what exactly happened in the final this year? This was the one you watched, and as you got ever more and more intoxicated, the entries seemed to become more and more bizarre.

The new voting system, which we touched on yesterday, upset viewers so much that apparently a third of a million of them have signed a petition asking for a recount. The EBU, guilty of bring us the song contest every year, apparently think they have done enough already.

What changed this year was that every country got two lots of votes: a jury vote, and a televote. Most of the voting went entirely as you might expect: the further east you travel the more everyone likes Russia; the former Yugoslav countries all get along very nicely; and only Malta likes the UK. Everything is entirely as usual, except for the bizarre inclusion of an Australian entry, which the juries loved a lot more than the televoters.

So why even bother with the jury vote, especially given the apparently questionable behaviour of one of the juries? Well, let’s allow the EBU to figure that out. Ultimately, neither the juries nor the public had their way, and neither Australia nor Russia won.

The UK this year managed 62 points, which sounds impressive until you realise that only put them in 24th place out of 26 entries, and they have only performed worse on four occasions.

Australia, having broadcast the contest annually since 1983, and having participated many times by sending their artists via other countries, made their debut last year, and inexplicably returned this year. Not only that, but they ended up doing so well that they actually won the jury’s vote, with nine countries picking them for the magical douze points.

But ultimately, loved by pretty much everybody, this year’s winner was the Ukranian entry, so next year will take us further easy again.

 Eurovision 2016 – Part 1

One of the most exciting/camp/pointless (delete as appropriate) events of the year took place just a couple of days ago, and yielded a rather unexpected winner. But the Eurovision Song Contest is so big these days that just one contest is nowhere enough – we need three: the final, but also two semi-finals.

This year’s contest was in Sweden, and included a surprise entry from Australia, who were entered into one of the semi-finals, while Portugal and Romania decided not to waste their money this time around.

The first semi-final, last Tuesday, saw several hundred points being awarded to each of Hungary, Croatia, Netherlands, Armenia, Russia, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Austria, Azerbaijan, and Malta. Then the second brought success for Latvia, Poland, Israel, Serbia, Lithuania, Australia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Georgia, and Belgium.

Let’s take a detailed look at the finals tomorrow, where a new scoring system led to a Danish jury member getting pretty confused, and apparently actually meant that Australia missed out on the win, which would have made for some interesting logistics if the rules hadn’t been changed. And of course Russia ended up very upset indeed.

More tomorrow!