To some music lovers, the fact that Josh Groban’s Noel was the highest-selling album of 2007 is all the proof they need that major-label music is dying. To shareholders and label execs, though, the numbers are more important, and the numbers are grim: music sales are down 21 percent this Christmas season.
Variety has the latest music numbers from Nielsen Soundscan on music sales from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. In 2007, 83.9 million albums were sold, down 21.4 million from last year. A 20 percent drop in sales is more than a blip; it’s serious trouble.
The industry has been under pressure for years, of course. Back in August, we took a detailed look at trends in the movie, music, and video game businesses and noted that RIAA companies have seen sales drop by 11.6 percent between 2002 and 2006, even as movies hold steady and games are showing sales increases.
The recent news suggests that people are turning away from the CD as a Christmas present, due in large part to the rise of online music services like iTunes, eMusic, and the Amazon MP3 shop. Now that non-DRMed music is widely available from many popular artists, giving the gift of digital downloads can be an attractive option for holiday shoppers. Certainly it’s becoming more mainstream; even my local supermarket now stocks iTunes gift cards.
Music buying has certainly been migrating online, and the spectacular decline of CD sales is putting extra pressure on labels to move more online copies of the music they publish. This is clearly one of the reasons that Warner, traditionally a staunch DRM defender, agreed to strip DRM from its tracks offered on Amazon; it needed to do something (anything) to shore up flagging sales.
But as albums move online, the “album” is also losing its luster. Download services let consumers pick and choose, and many buyers seem to do just that, snagging the hits and leaving the rest behind. While digital distribution enables this, it’s hard to blame digital for the common perception that most top 40 albums contain their share of filler.
Padding out discs with mediocre tracks just won’t work anymore, but it might also keep listeners from discovering the deeper cuts on quality discs. It’s not just a sad day for music companies when customers decide to cherry-pick one Josh Ritter song, for instance; it’s a sad day for the buyers as well, as they miss out on the complete album experience of a consummate artist.
Sadly, Ritter and his kind are the exception; so long as they are, music fans will continue to grab the hits, and they’ll do so online. At least now they can get them DRM-free.