Today’s Wall Street Journal features a page-one story about the spiraling steam of higgeldy-piggeldy that is the music industry. The short synopsis is something like this: We’re all doomed, so get out while you can and start working in a field that promises more longevity, like dog-walking or mine-sweeping. But for those of you interested in the nuts and bolts of the story, we have a handy Q&A:
Q: So why is this story front-page news? Hasn’t the industry been in decline for years?
A: True dat. But the first quarter of this year is one of the worst of the Soundscan era, with compact-disc sales down 20 percent from last year.
Q: Compact whats are down where now?
A: We know, we know–CDs hardly seem in vogue these days, especially in the land of MP3 blogs. But compact discs still account for more than 85 percent of all music sales, and while digital purchases of individual songs are up from last year, that’s not enough to offset the losses from declining CD revenue.
Q: But everyone in the world bought the Shins and Arcade Fire albums! Those bands are, like, famous!
A: While their albums may have debuted in the top 10, that’s not a tough feat these days. As the article notes: “One week, American Idol runner-up Chris Daughtry’s rock band sold just 65,000 copies of its chart-topping album; another week, the Dreamgirls movie soundtrack sold a mere 60,000. As recently as 2005, there were many weeks when such tallies wouldn’t have been enough to crack the top 30 sellers. In prior years, it wasn’t uncommon for a No. 1 record to sell 500,000 or 600,000 copies a week.” Meanwhile, one billion songs are traded on file-sharing sites each month.
Q: Wow. By the way, don’t you find some of the lyrics on that new Arcade Fire pretty lacking? I mean, “I’m standing on a stage/Of fear and self-doubt/It’s a hollow play/But they’ll clap anyway”? That’s supposed to be deep? It’s like people are afraid to admit that it’s just pretty good, not spellbinding.
Q: Okay, so how are artists supposed to make money?
A: By peddling lots of extra crap:
Jeff Rabhan, who manages artists and music producers including Jermaine Dupri, Kelis and Elliott Yamin, says CDs have become little more than advertisements for more-lucrative goods like concert tickets and T-shirts. “Sales are so down and so off that, as a manager, I look at a CD as part of the marketing of an artist, more than as an income stream,” says Mr. Rabhan. “It’s the vehicle that drives the tour, the merchandise, building the brand, and that’s it. There’s no money.”
Q: Ouch. Okay, but labels still sell a lot of CDs through those big chains, right?
A: For now. But the article notes that “Best Buy has been quietly reducing the floor space it dedicates to music,” meaning that even the big-box retailers might be growing tired of music’s diminising returns.
Q: Oh, sorry–I was torrenting that new LCD record.
A: It’s so good!