August 28, 2014 Last Updated 1:47 pm

Album sales reach new low as total music sales decline; many publishers take notice, tremble

Can publishers avoid the same fate as the record labels? They can if they don’t make the same mistakes and abandon what made their products great to begin with

Just what the music industry needed, more bad news regarding sales. Today Billboard reported that the latest Nielsen SoundScan data says that album sales for the latest week measured as 3.97 million, the first time sales have fallen below the 4 million mark in the 23 years of the report.

Everybody has a theory why music sales are falling – from pirating to iTunes, from pricing to quality (current popular music sucks, the one thing most agree on) – but the scary thing is that the declines are accelerating. The reason most see for this acceleration is music streaming services.

MusicSalesThat makes sense to me, I am a big consumer of music (both because I am big, and I am a consumer).

How big? I can’t count my CD collection (forget LPs for now) but using a mathematical formula I calculated that my CD collection is somewhere north of 7,000. But walking down stairs to where my CDs are is a pain compared to simply streaming music via Beats or Pandora. So I get why many people are turning to streaming, saves on having to buy all those bookshelves from Ikea.

There is also no doubt that the word ‘digital’ is now, and has been, a dirty word in the music industry. Moving from analog to digital allows for all the various ways that a consumer can access music. It allows for streaming, not to mention pirating.

So, fellow publishers, is what we are seeing in the music industry but a taste of what is in store for us in magazine, newspaper and book publishing?

For many print and digital publishers, the news that music sales are crumbling is like being on death row and seeing that the prisoner next to you has just been taken from their cell. You’re still alive, but time appears to be running out.

As physical newsstands decline in number, and as more and more consumers read their content only online, many publishers wonder if it is inevitable that overall sales will collapse. Adding to the concern is the knowledge that services such as Next Issue Media (in magazines) and Oyster (in eBooks) and others that are now offering their own unlimited streaming. Surely publishing is going the way of music, right?

It might be good to step back and remember that while CD sales ended up boosting sales of music overall, there were many complaints about the new format. For one thing, the format appeared cheaper to produce, yet CDs from the beginning cost more than vinyl LPs – people felt ripped off. Then the packaging was cheapened further – gone were the gatefold covers and insert posters, and in came plastic jewel cases and one page booklets. The record labels quickly became as popular as AT&T and Comcast are today. What the record labels quickly forgot was there was once great pleasure derived from buying an LP that could have been replicated when CDs came about, but rarely was.

ProPacem-cdThere are some exceptions, music labels thinking differently about their products. Today, when I receive a new CD-book from Barcelona from Alia-Vox it is a great, great day. Their book-CDs come beautifully packaged, with reading material in multiple languages, often with booklets as large an installment of Game of Thrones. Similarly, when receiving a box set from Mosaic Records, historic jazz recordings with an extensively research booklet, it is an incredible joy.

These labels still understand the platform that attracts buyers, albeit in limited numbers.

I think there is a lesson there for newspaper, magazine and book publishers who want to create digital publications reader are willing, even eager, to purchase.

It is said that Yahoo is creating online magazines. BS. They are creating specialty websites. A magazine is a curated collection of content, limited, finite, consistent. Yahoo is creating specialty websites that will be unlimited, hardly curated, and highly variable.

Publishers have a choice to make: they can either assume that the end is nigh and begin adjusting to a world without their formats, or they can continue to experiment with trying to translate what made their print products so desirable for readers into digital platforms.

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