Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Demise of the Music Industry: Rookies Competing with Babe Ruth

In a great article today, the Wall Street Journal reported that music (CD) sales are plummeting:
In a dramatic acceleration of the seven-year sales decline that has battered the music industry, compact-disc sales for the first three months of this year plunged 20% from a year earlier, the latest sign of the seismic shift in the way consumers acquire music.
How bad are we talking? Really bad.
This year has already seen the two lowest-selling No. 1 albums since Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks music sales, was launched in 1991. One week, "American Idol" runner-up Chris Daughtry's rock band sold just 65,000 copies of its chart-topping album; another week, the "Dreamgirls" movie soundtrack sold a mere 60,000. As recently as 2005, there were many weeks when such tallies wouldn't have been enough to crack the top 30 sellers. In prior years, it wasn't uncommon for a No. 1 record to sell 500,000 or 600,000 copies a week.

But there's hope -- consumers haven't abandoned music entirely, reports the Journal:
Apple Inc.'s sale of around 100 million iPods shows that music remains a powerful force in the lives of consumers.
What's going on here?

Well, as a guy who has recently gotten back into music after a long hiatus, I can report the not-so-startling fact that while there are a lot of great bands out there, there are very, very few that can possibly compare to the murderer's row of the greatest hits of the past six decades of rock n' roll, and even fewer that can defeat the combined forces of rock, jazz, blues, classical, baroque, and whatever else I've forgotten -- all of which is sitting in my iPod, waiting to be played.

You're a rookie pitcher. You've made the major leagues. Your first game arrives, and you face the following lineup, all in their prime:

Ozzie Smith
Willie Mays
Ted Williams
Hank Aaron
Babe Ruth
Barry Bonds
Lou Gehrig
Joe DiMaggio
George Brett

What are you going to do? Maybe take up cricket. Maybe take up golf.

That's the sort of situation that faces your average rock band today. You write some nice lyrics and some clever hooks, and you get your block knocked off by Arethra Franklin or Frank Sinatra or The King Himself or a goddamn Foreigner greatest hits, and you ask yourself, what's a hard-working musician gotta do to get some sales? If Oasis had been started in the 60s, we'd talk about them like we do the Rolling Stones, or at least Eric Clapton -- but they were 30 years too late, so we forget how great they were for those two awesome albums.

iPods are the problem with new music sales -- there sits 30GB of music, some of which, with normal human diligence I haven't gotten to in a year, and yet shuffle play brings it up in queue to me, and keeps me from buying new stuff, unless that new stuff is so irredeemably awesome that I would kill myself if I didn't.

This doesn't mean that a great band can't carve out a niche for itself. It can play live gigs, it can engage with its fans, it can politic for the starving of Africa, it can do all the things that dead icons can't quite pull off. But primary on the list of things it *can't* do better is move CDs through Wherehouse, which is the problem that the music industry must face.

Some clever person pointed out a few years back that Microsoft's biggest remaining competitor in the OS and desktop application was its own installed base. Hello, music business: Steve Jobs didn't kill you with iTunes, he destroyed you with shuffle play of the vast, awesome archive of your past success.

Babe Ruth wins, rookie. Now whatcha gonna do?

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