Global music industry sales increase for the first time since 1999

Global music industry sales, led by digital downloads, rose for the first time in over a decade. Photo: (RT) music club

DOTHAN, AL, February 26, 2013 — The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) just announced that global music industry sales are up a miniscule 0.3 percent, the first increase since 1999. Apparently this is great cause for joy in Mudville.

According to IFPI, the industry is getting ready to roar back to the halcyon days before digital downloads, thanks to rising digital download sales. It’s complicated. Total global sales for all music formats were $16.5 billion for 2012, up from $16.4 billion the year before.

The sales crash over the past decade came about because the industry was not prepared technically to deal with digital downloading when it started. Panicky music companies responded to an onslaught of digital file sharing with lawsuits and posturing that only encouraged more pirating by the tech savvy. Year after year, executives blamed poor sales performance on pirating, apparently never thinking to question the quality of music itself.

Poor pirates. They get blamed for everything these days – stolen music, stolen movies, stolen videos, stolen eBooks and even stolen one per centers in yachts. The days when a pirate could joyfully cruise around the ocean looking for some booty and a town to pillage are gone. Now pirates have to face a constant barrage of lawsuits and federal marshals looking for digital contraband.

Pirate Captain: I miss the bloomin’ days when we could just go loot and pillage and pick up booty without havin’ ta shake it!
First mate:  Oh I agree yer captainship, times they’ve changed ain’t they?
Pirate Captain:  I don’t even know what a bloomin’ ‘tune’ is and I’m gettin’ blamed fer stealin’ ‘em!
First mate:  Yes, no one ever accused us of stealin’ nuthin’ back when it was all vinyl eh?
Pirate Captain:  Well this digital stuff is jest too much fer me. I’m thinkin’ a hangin’ up me cutlass.
First mate:  Well yer mucketymuckness, I’m a bit off on pillagin’ too. I think I’d like to just sing and dance, with silver buckle slippers and tight shiny pants…
Pirate Captain:   (silence, glares at first mate). That’s waaaay too much information matey…”

In regards to recorded music, baby boomers didn’t start the fire, it was already burning since…well, never mind that. In the beginning there were Edison’s tin foil cylinders, but they were soon replaced by wax and some other materials. By the late 1920s the whole cylinder mess was tossed out for flat 12-inch discs called 78s after the revolutions per minute (rpm) they ran at.

Since 78s could only record about five minutes of sound per side, they were bundled together in anthology packages called albums. Young people in the 1920s loved them. Their parents hated the noise. One is given to wonder how death metal or rap would have gone over in 1929.

Boomers came into the picture around the time of the first 45 rpm, single-song per side records, along with larger 33 rpm discs with about 20 minutes per side. Those were the glory days of analog music. Many will surely remember, as small kids,  irritating parents by playing Disney songs over and over and over, or discovering their creative side by remolding mom’s 45s over a hot light bulb.

Mother: You’ve ruined my favorite Elvis record!!
You: Who’s Elvis?
Mother: He’s the man I should have married instead of your father!”
You: ???

The biggest problem with vinyl records, from the music industry’s viewpoint, was that consumers owned the music and weren’t interested in buying the same songs over and over again.  Thus began their quest to make your record collection technologically obsolete. The other problem was that if sales tanked, record companies had to admit that the music or the artist was no good and write off the whole thing. Do you remember the Mud Slurps? No? Case dismissed.

Popular artists had to constantly produce new material to stay alive and couldn’t make an entire career out of a single song. If they weren’t popular they could go back to washing dishes at the diner with the Mud Slurps.

Vinyl albums were easily scratched and couldn’t be used in a car. They were eventually replaced by tape, first in the 8-track format that would spew itself out all over the inside of the car, then the cassette version that also stretched and jammed.

Then cassette players mysteriously all disappeared in one single night. The age of the compact disc had arrived. They seemed to be exactly what consumers had always wanted from the start. They were portable and durable, and their digital format was just perfect to share via the internet. That was when real trouble began for the music companies.

Over 50 Consumer:    I need a record player.
Store Clerk:  What’s that?
Over 50 Consumer:    You play music on it.
Store Clerk:  Never heard of it.
Over 50 Consumer:    Okay. How about a cassette player?
Store Clerk:  What’s that?
Over 50 Consumer:    You play music on it.
Store Clerk:  Never heard of it.
Over 50 Consumer:    Fine. I’d like a DVD player.
Store Clerk:  We only have Blu-Ray.
Over 50 Consumer:    What’s that?
Store Clerk:  You play movies on it.
Over 50 Consumer:    Never heard of it. Where’s the book section?
Store Clerk:  What’s that?

Young people still don’t quite get the concept that they are basically buying air at a premium price, but digital download sales are up 9% and music executives are finally happy. As the IFPI reports, there is a “palpable buzz in the air.” Then again they might just be describing what some of the new music sounds like.

(Be sure to get The Backstory and more at Rick’s author blog

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Rick Townley

Rick Townley was a bookseller before switching to electronic publishing with The New York Times, Reuters, Grolier and others. He is the author of a humor book, For Boomers Only – Exploring Life in the New Millennium, a supernatural novel, Stepping Out of Time, and numerous short stories. In addition to contributing to the Washington Times Communities, Rick is working on a fiction series called Stigma and resides in southern Alabama with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.


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