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“There’s No Good New Music”

records“There hasn’t been any good music in forty years!” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this self-evidently ridiculous assertion, I’d be able to buy a Happy Meal. With a Super-sized Coke Zero. It’s a common sentiment among people of a certain age, and attempts to persuade with opinions to the contrary are inevitably met with skepticism, if not derision. But it looks like the dinosaurs as well as Millennials are putting their money where their mouths are: for the first time, over the course of 2014, online ‘catalog album sales’ (think, classic vinyl, sold via iTunes and other e-services) outpaced online sales of new music.

The Music Business Worldwide article poses some legitimate and worrisome questions for the industry: “are people merely starting to consume their new music on streaming services rather than buying it in album form? Or are they increasingly less impressed with the new album releases that arrive year-in, year-out?”

Here’s a chart showing the sales pace of digital sales since 2005, comparing catalog albums to new album sales:









[chart courtesy of Music Business Worldwide]

Here’s what the data looks like for physical sales:









[chart courtesy of Music Business Worldwide]

We all know that overall sales of music – across all platforms – have been down across the industry for the past several years. Annual physical album sales of ‘current’ or new albums fell a precipitous 80% from 2005 to 2014, down from 379,800,000 to 77,600,000 units. Over the same time, though, the fall in catalogue album sales has been gentler, dipping 67%, from 222,800,000 to 73,000,000 units.









[chart courtesy of Music Business Worldwide]

Expectations are that soon, maybe in 2015, sales of physical ‘catalog albums’ – vinyl and CDs – will outstrip sales of new albums. As an example of this trend, Legend: The Best of Bob Marley & the Wailers was recorded over the period 1972-1983, and was first released in May 1984. Last year, it was the fifth best-selling vinyl album in the U.S., 42 years after the initial recordings commenced.

There’s also evidence that music consumers in the U.S. spend more on concerts than on recorded music. This data strongly supports the notion that for musicians, their primary source of income will no longer come from record sales; instead, live performance, as well as merchandising, licensing and music publishing have become their bread and butter.

Billboard Magazine charts catalog albums sales (defined as albums across all genres that were released at least 18 months prior and have dropped a certain number of chart positions, which includes many of today’s current hit-makers). It’s interesting that among the top 20 for the February 7, 2015 chart, ‘oldies’ occupy several of the top slots: (4) Greatest Hits (Fleetwood Mac), (7) Thriller (Michael Jackson), (8) Back In Black (ACDC), (13) The Hits (Billy Joel), (16) The Legend of Johnny Cash (Johnny Cash), (17) Legend (Bob Marley & the Wailers) and (20) Led Zeppelin IV (Led Zeppelin).

What’s driving the trend toward buying classic music? Certainly there are a number of factors, not the least of which, in my opinion, is the demise of the record album as a cohesive artistic statement. Sure, some of the albums shown in the Billboard Catalog Albums chart are greatest hits compilations, but Thriller, Back In Black and Led Zeppelin IV were each greater than the sum of their parts.

I still hold that there’s great music being made today, even by mainstream artists like Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. They know how to write hits songs and there ain’t nothing wrong with that. But the days of the record album as a unified statement from an artist seem to have passed, and apparently music fans of all stripes and ages are reaching back for older albums that present an artistic vision, rather today’s vehicle for delivering a few hit songs with lots of fluff and filler.