Saturday, August 1, 2009

You Never Give Them Your Money

Today's Times op-ed by reliably readable "visual columnist" Charles M. Blow features a very interesting graph:The chart looks at the lifespan and profitability of various formats, and it's interesting to see how, as a new format gains dominance, it eats the sales of its predecessor. The chart indicates that, since the 1970s, these things have worked in ten year cycles. Notice that 8-track and Vinyl shipments both peaked in 1978, that cassette shipments saw their high watermark in 1988, and that CDs had their best year in 1999. Ten years later, digital downloads don't yet make nearly as much money as decimated CD sales, but that will change soon enough.

It speaks to capitalism's prerogative to constantly evolve as well as to the rate of technological change, I suppose. I suspect if you were to chart VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray sales/shipments as Blow did for music formats, you'd see a similar, perhaps slightly slower progression.

In any case, the graph also charts how American tastes are shifting. Currently, individual track downloads earn more than digital album sales. While factoring in CD sales would reverse this relationship, at least in the digital world track sales account for more revenue than albums. Historically, Americans have shunned singles in favor of albums, but the graph suggests we're inching closer to the singles-loving Brits.

This shift has much to do with modern media players, which allow users to shuffle and recombine songs in ways previously difficult or impossible. It may also speak to the scarcity of CD singles, formerly a boon for album sales.

There's a lot to tease out of the information Blow provides, but I'm not sure he always gets it right. Witness:

•He points his finger at streaming music, which " is poised to seal the deal" vis-a-vis "the music industry's deathwatch." To blame are "teens" streaming online. Fucking teens! While streaming surely accounts for a drop in sales, Blow doesn't note that streams (including free streams, YouTube views, and internet radio) actually earn money for the music industry, usually through ad revenue. Curious, as his own paper wrote online streams up as a potential savior of the music industry last Sunday.

•Blow closes with this parenthetical:
I wrote this column while listening to “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” the last truly great CD I ever bought. Every track is a gem. When did I buy it? 1999.
The implication is that truly great albums aren't being made any more, contributing to weak sales. It's a total fogey sentiment, and clearly not the opinion of a man who's listened to The Chemistry Of Common Life, Farm, Love Vs. Money, or any of the other gem-laden albums released just in the past year. I bet Blow would like New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War).

•Blow writes "Apple is working with the four largest labels to seduce people into buying more digital albums." While he's right that it's "too little, too late," he neglects to mention that the contents of the seduction--interactive booklets--are a joke.

In parting I'll note that, for me, the scariest part of the column is that "of the 13 million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never got a single buyer." Guess the Long Tail theory is a joke too.

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