Why Are Music Album Sales Tanking?

"I live my life a quarter mile at a time."

Who uttered that famous declaration? Was it: a) Confucius, b) Friedrich Nietzsche, c) Vin Diesel, d) Dominic Toretto? Of course, that is a trick question because both “c” and “d” are correct. The movie was The Fast and the Furious , a cinematic masterpiece about street racing and skid marks.

Which brings us to the bar graph. It shows total music album sales (physical and download) in the U.S. from 2000 to 2017. Album sales were once the revenue champion of the music business. Not anymore. We bought 785 million albums in 2000 and a mere 169 million in 2017. If you’re in the business of selling albums, right about now you’re downsizing and sending out your résumé. Oh, hang on, someone just texted me...

Anyway, album sales are down. There are lots of reasons. For starters, by their nature, albums lend themselves to physical media, and sales of physical media aren’t great. LP sales in 2017 were 14 million, modestly up from 2016. That’s good. But CD sales were 88 million and downloaded album sales were 66 million, both down bigly. Are album sales declining because we don’t like albums or because we don’t like the physical media that holds them? I think — wait, I have to check my Facebook page...

So, anyway, I don’t think the real problem is the physical media. We’ve been happily buying physical music media for 100 years, and I don’t see why we should now hate physical media. Rather, I think, the problem is short attention span. When you buy an album, you’re making a potential time commitment that fewer and fewer of us are willing to make. Forty-five minutes of music? That’s an impossibly unreasonable demand for someone’s undivided attention. Oh shoot — I have to answer this e-mail...

Instead of committing to big chunks of music, we’re choosing to not commit at all. Instead of buying long-duration music, we choose to nosh on streams.

Where was I? Well, when you buy an album, you might have to sit down and listen to the whole thing. And to do that uninterrupted, without distraction, as a continuous piece of entertainment, seems unlikely. Sure, we used to sit down in a chair precisely aligned between two speakers, preferably behind closed doors, and do just that. But doing that today is just — whoa! Did you see that Tweet?

So, instead of committing to big chunks of music, we’re choosing to not commit at all. Instead of buying long-duration music, we choose to nosh on streams. In 2012 there were 90 billion song streams; in 2017 there were 618 billion. You see why all the people in album companies are sending their résumés to the streaming companies. With song streams, each song only lasts a few minutes, the stream content is constantly morphing, and it’s easy to tune in, turn away, and tune back in. This is ideal for a lifestyle that embraces multitasking, which is a polite way of describing not really paying attention.

Sorry, I spaced out for a minute. Here’s something else to worry about. The one tiny bright spot in album sales, LP sales, is being propped up by what I’ll charitably call “legacy” albums — that is, reissues of old albums from the olden days when people still bought lots of albums. For example, in 2017, the top-selling LP album was The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (72,000 copies), a recording that’s more than 50 years old. And the second-best-selling LP album in 2017? The Beatles’ Abbey Road (66,000 copies). At some point, the reissue well will run dry — ha! Look at that crazy skateboard video!

So anyway, it takes about 10 seconds to race a fast quarter mile. It’s good that cars are getting faster because, frankly, paying attention to anything for more than 10 seconds is getting harder and harder to do. That’s because — look! A chicken!

Michael in Dallas's picture

You have ignored the elephant in the room, Very, Very Poor New Music. If you try to watch the current US music award shows it quickly becomes very obvious how sorry and pathetic the state of most "music" is right now. When the "best" is boring, tired and derivative, and dominated by singers with limited range, material and lack of variety it is no wonder sales are tanking. The Beys, RiRis, Taylors, Katys, and Brunos are pathetic. I remember a time when audio magazines reviewed albums and they were actually worth listening to. The music then was not merely sonic "wallpaper" it had character and texture. I personally have to scour Youtube to find good newer music with artists like Troye Sivan, Dua Lipa, Misia of Japan and Sinne Eeg of Denmark.

drny's picture

Ken, your use of we put us all on the hook.
Are you (a baby boomer) including yourself in the distracted /tasteless "we"?
The "we" you maligned are actually Millennials and younger generation.
If any particular demographic is actually keeping albums sales and physical media viable is "we"boomers.
Case in point 30-40 year anniversary releases, hi-res versions of forty plus year old recordings, life concerts of 30+ year old bands.

Good humorous attempt though at shedding some light on the issue.

Billy's picture

I go back to the Reagan years and blame MTV. (I blame the Reagan years for many things, but I digress) It was then that the bad music truly started. Suddenly the hype was more important then the music. Music has gone downhill for the better part of 40 years. Music company executives seem to think that how you look and act is the number one important thing, not the music itself. Then, add in the fact that the record companies have elected to charge far too much for whole albums. A download costs the company pretty much, zero, yet they price it like a CD that had to be physically made and shipped. 20 years ago the kids got tired of the hypocrisy and the file sharing started, albums were doomed from that point. You are not going to change it. Lets just hope that the singles being released, are at least of good quality in the future. Oh, and you are right above about the Boomers. When we die, the album culture will die with us. We all remember a simpler time going to the record shop, leafing through the stacks, reading liner notes, then coming home to sit and thoroughly enjoy the experience. (at least for 20 minutes until we had to get up and flip her over!) But, lets give these kids some slack, they grow up in a totally different world then us, one with a plethora of varied entertainment options that we didn't have. The world is changing, but is it our job to declare it not as good? If they are happy, lets be happy for them. Tolerance is a good virtue.

anmpr1's picture

Why would a kid buy a physical copy of what they can pirate and store on their hard drive for nothing? Are kids even interested in music? Who knows? Why would a musically astute adult buy another version of Beethoven's 9th when he already has half a dozen or more? I keep seeing "new and improved" reissues of Pet Sounds every couple of years. And Beatles mono. What does that tell you about today's music business?

We've reached peak music, and it's downhill from here.

Over the years I've accumulated pretty much everything I need or want. I kept all my records, although I can say that records pressed today are generally much better quality (the physical media) than what was sold in the '60s and '70s, before CD. I've bought some record albums, but that's pretty much it. Some of the records contain a coupon allowing you to download the digital files, so I get those.

I store all my CDs on my PC. Hardly ever use a CD player. In fact, a CD player would be the last thing I would ever buy. Not sure why they even make them, anymore. I did buy two replacement styli for my Shure phono cartridge, since they are getting out that business. I learned my lesson when they stopped making styli for their V15 MR, and I was left out.

Some people probably purchase bandwidth intensive "high res" stuff, but that's based on a lot of snake oil, etc. So Neil Young's been playing ear shattering rock all his life, and probably has little hearing left, but he can tell a difference between the higher sampled stuff? Right. Anyhow, I'd never go that route. I recently bought a B&W headphone that came with a dozen or so classical "hi-res" downloads. I coouldn't tell the difference between the native resolution and subsequent 320K mp3 conversion. People who claim they can, and actually buy this stuff, have to be a small minority of the market.

It's an ironic mix of the old and new. Go to Kenricksound dot com, or look at their videos on line. This wonderful Japanese operation specializes in loving restoration of vintage JBL monitors. They demo them through tube gear. What's their source? A PC music server.

Rich67's picture

The music is still just as good as before, though maybe different. The world of audio has changed and it began with the Walkman. Music has become portable. Everyone takes their music with them instead of sitting in a room full of equipment and listening.I have found lot's of new and good jazz music listening to streaming services. I have bought music and downloaded it to my computer. I have, also, found new music that's both good and interesting. One of my new favorites is Chance the Rapper. Quite a difference from Wynton, Cannonball, Louis Armstrong, Getz....but very relevant.
The world changes and the way music is delivered and listened to has changed. I'm 73 and I realized it.
Music is still evolving and the artists are evolving. The methods of delivering this art form are also evolving.Nothing is as constant as change. Also, hi-res audio is the biggest piece of BS and no one is paying any attention to it. This shows in absolutely abysmal sales and no real interest. Hi res audio appears to be the emperor's new clothes.
Gotta go now. I'm putting my earbuds in and I'm going to listen to "Miles Davis Radio" which is one of my customized stations on Pandora.