The Told and Untold Theories of Decreasing Music Sales

Past and Present?

This past Saturday, I went to the CD store to buy two CDs:  Nas & Damian Marley – Distant Relatives and Outkast – Aquemini. One of the albums (Distant Relatives) was recently released within the past month, while the other album (Aquemini) has been out since 1998.  I already know what you’re probably thinking:  You are just listening to this classic album?  Yes, shame on me. 

Back to the point, there’s no doubt that the amount of people actually legitimately buying (no, buying from a third-party black market/friend/co-worker/great-uncle doesn’t count) music has sharply declined.  I am a religious reader of the Billboard and Nielsen Soundscan charts, so I paid attention to the album sales charts released today.  The number one album sold 63,000 copies.  Yes, you are reading that right: 63,000 copies.  This counts CDs bought from the store and from the Internet.  Rewind to this same time ten years ago; the number one album on the Billboard, Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP, sold 794,000 copies.  The week before, that same album sold 1.76 million in its debut week.  The Marshall Mathers LP, according to, has been certified 9x platinum in the United States.  Fast-forward back to 2010 and artists are barely able to reach gold status.  What is the cause for the lack of music sales?  Is there a sole group of people to blame? 

Note: To the readers, the following theories that I am about to explain are strictly theoretical based on my observations.  One, some, or all could be without a doubt factors in the decline of music sales. 

The “Burner” 

The minute that the first set of affordable CD burners was placed on the public market, all bets were off.  Now, I’m aware that CD burners have been available for some time; as early as 1988.  However, the price of a CD burner back in the late 80s cost a couple thousand dollars and weighed a couple thousand pounds.  Over time, CD burners and overall disc recording technology became cheaper to the public over time, reaching its focal point in the late 90s.  People could now take a legitimate CD and make an exact duplicate to give to whoever requested it.  Reminds you of those times in the past when you bought a new album on tape, and used your boombox to record the whole entire album on a blank tape (both sides).  The music industry did not have measures placed on music CDs, such as copy protection, until after the industry realized that high amounts of illegal CDs were being copied. 

Click, Click, Pass 

File sharing programs made the problem that much bigger.  From early file sharing programs such as Napster, Bearshare, and Kazaa, people could basically get any file or music in this case they wanted.  This was victory music to the ears of regular everyday citizens.  “Why buy the single on CD for $3.99 when I can just download it for free?” was the thought on millions of users’ minds.  For the artists and the overall music industry, it was like funeral music with the overbearing bagpipes playing in the background.  For standout protesters, such as Metallica and Madonna, it was the beginning of a digital war between the music industry and its customers.  Napster ended up getting sued for the illegal distribution of “intellectual property” and placed under the regulations of the U.S. District Court until the company filed for bankruptcy.  The RIAA began to make claims against those same regular everyday citizens for the illegal downloading of music.  From that point on, file sharing programs became available via freeware or shareware on the Internet regularly.  While most of the programs have been shut down, there are probably still a couple floating out there. 

Quality of Music 

Let’s be honest with ourselves:  Albums can be extremely mediocre or just downright bad.  Before the file-sharing programs and the CD burners, the only way that a fan or casual music listener could listen to an album was by actually purchasing it from the store.  A CD can range anywhere from $9.99 to $18.99 depending on the artist, promotion methods used, and the store.  If a person spends the amount of money to purchase an album and the overall quality is not up to expectations, the listener feel cheated.  The listener feels that the same amount of money could have been used on other useful purchases rather than a CD that doesn’t deliver.  Personally, there have been albums that I bought that definitely failed my expectations.  Why did I buy the CD in the first place?  It was usually because I was an avid listener of the artist, or the first (or even second) singles on the radio were decent enough for an album purchase. 

Now, with more websites that use streaming to play songs (e.g. Youtube, Pandora, Playlist, etc.), someone can listen to a couple of songs or the album in its entirety if they’re lucky before buying it.  There are still millions of people who still download music like they’re swiping that brand new credit card.  This leads me to my fourth theory. 

The Music Listeners Themselves 

In my last theory, I stated that the quality of, or lack of, music could prevent a consumer from actually buying the entire album.  What if the album superior in quality?  Better yet, what if the album is indeed a classic album?  In my opinion, if a person decided to listen to an album, and the overall conception is good, then the album should be purchased in order to support the artist.  However, in reality, people are still not buying the album(s). I find this to be a shame, no matter if the album can be found on a torrent website for free.  The artists work hard, or even above and beyond, to deliver a quality product for its faithful fans and overall music listeners alike.  The best that you can do is support the artist and BUY THE ALBUM.  It’s bad enough that an artist is lucky enough to see $.10 per album sold as profit; imagine what the profit is for an album that can’t even sell 500,000 copies (which is the current reality for many artists new or old). 

Something that I have noticed with saliency is the demographic that the album is targeted to.  Let’s examine Susan Boyle in this case.  Her debut album I Dreamed a Dream sold an impressive 701,000 copies according to in the first week.  In a total of six weeks, the album sold 3.1 million copies.  I totally understand that Susan Boyle was part of the successful show Britain’s Got Talent and even became a YouTube sensation.  However, who was her album mainly targeted to?  It was targeted to the older generation of music listeners that actually buys albums.  Boyle fits in the genre of Vocal, usually means that users of this genre consist of the older crowd.  I also understand that the album was released right in time for the holidays.  However, again, how many other albums within that time span sold as many units as Susan Boyle? 

With the majority of Hip-Hop, R&B, Pop, and even Rock albums that are released, who is the target?  The target is usually the younger generation.  Yes, the same generation that is extremely technology-dependent.  Not to confuse any readers; I also come from the same generation of tech-savvy masters.  Since we are so technology-dependent, this means that we can easily “get” the album before its even released in the stores.  Unfortunately, the same tech-savvy generation is the one that is carrying much of the blame for the lack of actual purchasing.  I don’t think all the blame should be placed on the younger generations just because of technological advances. 

The Record Company, Part 1 – Lack of Promotion 

Ever wondered why well-known artists with stability released a quality album that never reached expectations of sales?  Could the responsibility can laid solely on the consumers?  What if the consumers never knew the album was being released?  Bad promotion can do this to an artist or group.  There have been albums from artists that I follow that were released without the sense of a T.V./Internet ad or a radio single.  How is the artist expect to sell any units if promotion is lackluster? 

On the other hand, let’s take a look at Sade.  Sade’s album, Soldier of Love, was released earlier this year and sold over 500,000 copies in the first week.  This is without a hit single, and an abundance of ads and promotion.  Sade has been in the game for 20+ years.  Moral of the story here:  Quality over quantity, folks.  Quality over quantity. 

The Record Company, Part 2 – Lack of Artist Development 

I remember when the phrase “One Hit Wonder” was coined out of the blue, almost at a rarity.  Now, one-hit wonders are everywhere.  You’ll hear a new artist on the radio with a Top-10 single that’s heard all over the radio.  After that, the artist is no longer relevant in the industry.  The song itself (with the help of iTunes) could go platinum, but the album go reach double-copper status.  What ever happened to developing the artist to where a full, competent album was released? 

I think that way too many record companies are pushing to get that one major hit from an artist and that’s it.  The short-term success is way too appealing for companies to pass up, especially with the ability of Internet users to download the song legally through a music provider and make a profit.  With digital songs given RIAA certifications at a more consistent rate, the focus is more on the hit single, not the hit album.  I strongly believe that if artists were pushed to release all-around quality albums, then the fan support will be stronger, and a consistent fan base will be developed that will follow the artist/group throughout their career. 

Have music companies “stuck it” to its faithful listeners?  Think for a minute.  If the company knows that people are not buying albums based off declining music sales, then in their mind, what is the purpose of developing the artist properly?  What is the purpose of promoting quality?  What is the purpose of taking a risk on an artist that is predetermined to fail?  Take a look at the movie industry.  Why do you think a lot of music artists are heading more towards acting then singing?  It’s because the return on investment (ROI) is not what it used to be in the music industry. 


So what am I trying to say?  I am not here to blame one entity, group, or person.  There is not one sole reason for the decline of album sales; more like a throng of factors leading up to this disaster.  Will album sales ever reach the status of the previous decades?  Only time will tell, but there’s a lot of work on multiple fronts that needs to be done in order to turn the tide.


5 Responses to The Told and Untold Theories of Decreasing Music Sales

  1. nobodyouknow says:

    Honestly, I doubt music sales will ever go back to what they were previously – the record companies and agents need to think of more ways for the artists to earn money (maybe more tours? concerts? promotional items like signed cds? I dunno…I’m not too well-informed on the ‘business’). Personally, I’ll always get an album, listen to it and only buy it IF I think the artists’ work is superior, you know? I’ll buy it just to support them.

    And it’s almost impossible, but they can try limiting what’s available online. Like make their copyright licenses harder to get passed and only authorize samples of the tracks to be distributed. Of course it’s hard to control such things, but they can at least try harder damnit!

    Imagine my shock when I borrowed a cd the other day and tried to burn it on my laptop and I COULDN’T?! Record companies should invest and make sure those are the types of cds which the artists’ music is sold on.

    Still, like I said before, I doubt sales will ever go back to what they were.

    And on a different note, distant relatives is amazing, yeah? Just got it yesterday (illegally. I’ll probably end up buying it though)

    And I’m sorry for just rambling on and on in your comments 🙂

    • Eric C. says:

      Hello. Thanks for reading along with your response. I don’t mind the rambling by the way, you brought up some good points.

      As much as I want to believe that music sales will increase, it doesn’t seem like that will happen again. Downloading has played a significant factor in the decrease of album sales, along with other factors. I’m glad to hear that you still support the artist by buying the album if the quality is superior. I think that a lot of people are taking precaution when buying albums. People don’t want to buy an album for only one or two tracks, which could have been downloaded on iTunes or any other music website.

      In regards to material available online, the music industry has really done a poor job in managing what gets leaked online. A couple of years ago, it was even worse. I believe that better measures are trying to be put in place to prevent an album from being leaked months before its official release. For example, Jay-Z and Blueprint 3. Jay-Z wanted to hand-deliver the album to the distribution company so that no one had access to the album prematurely. Unfortunately, this did not go according to plan.

      Oh yeah, Distant Relatives is AMAZING to say the least. I was very impressed with the album.

  2. Renee says:

    I know very little (OK, nothing) about how album sales (I always wonder if you even call them “albums” anymore!). So, with people legitimately buying music from, say iTunes or something similar, is that counted in the total album sales? Could it be people are buying just as much music now as before, but it’s in singles off the Internet instead of the CD/album/tape/whatever?

    And for what it’s worth, while burning CDs was cost-prohibitive in the ’80s, most people were buying tapes back then and we just recorded tapes onto blank tapes with the double tape decks on stereos. In my group, one friend might buy a tape and the rest of us would copy it.

    • Eric C. says:

      According to Billboard, “Billboard estimates the nine merchants who report to Nielsen SoundScan’s Building chart — Trans World Entertainment, Best Buy, Circuit City, iTunes, Starbucks, Borders, Target, Anderson Merchandisers and Handleman Co. — comprise about 80% of all U.S. album sales.” I don’t believe all digital retailers report to Billboard.

      In regards to your point on increased sales in singles instead of albums, I think you have a legitimate argument. For the year of 2009, there were 373.9 million albums sold in the U.S. in comparison to 1.159 billion digital tracks purchased. For the past couple of years, total purchases have totaled past the 1 billion mark. I believe that digital tracks are being downloaded a whole lot more because of cost and ease to purchase a single track.

      I’m glad to hear you were around for the tape era; I hear it was very productive.

      • Renee says:

        Thank you for that answer! My daughter is 15 and she and her friends are downloading to their iPods like crazy, so I’m pretty certain (at least in that age group) music is still very popular. And there are always concerts. I saw The Indigo Girls and Lyle Lovett last year and plan to go to Lilith Faire in August. I’m pretty picky about who I’m willing to see in concert — I have to REALLY love the artist. But I do still buy CDs and some downloads.

        I don’t think music will ever be gone. It will just change.

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