by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
My column in The Reader this week focuses on 2012 album sales and includes an interview with Mike Fratt who runs Homer’s Records. I typically don’t include my Reader column here at lazy-i.com, but make exceptions for music-focused commentary (such as this). You can also read the column online at thereader.com right here, or in print in this week’s issue (on stands now):
Over the Edge: The Compact Disc is Alive and Well (for now)
Billboard Magazine last week presented the final music sales numbers for 2012, and it appears to be filled with woe for the future of the compact disc.
The CD, which first became commercially available in 1982, has seen a steady decline first with the emergence of Napster (the first effective mp3 distribution device) in 1999 and then with the launch of Apple’s iTunes (and the invention of the iPod) in 2001 that made downloading digital music files “legitimate.”
But despite the constant heralding of its demise, the compact disc continues to survive, though its pulse weakens ever-so-slightly year after year. Case in point: Billboard reported that for the Year of Our Lord 2012, the sales of physical CDs (according to Nielsen SoundScan) were down a whopping 13 percent compared to 2011, reflecting a decline in U.S. album sales of 4 percent to 315.96 million from 330.57 million in 2011.
While CD sales continued to flounder, digital album downloads continued to increase their share of the overall album sales pie with a 14 percent gain to a record 117.68 million. Says Billboard, 37 percent of all albums sold in 2012 were downloads, up from 31 percent in 2011. For the first time in January 2012, digital surpassed physical with 50.3 percent of all music sales.
You might be scratching your head thinking, “Gee, 315 million albums seems like a lot to me.” Contrast that number with 2001, when Nielsen SoundScan reported CD album sales of 712 million. We’re talking a nearly 50 percent decline in album sales (of any format) in 11 years. It begs the question: Are people listening to less music or simply buying less music because they’re either 1) stealing it or 2) getting it from “free” sources, which could include anything from websites to free streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify?
For a local perspective, we turn (as we always do) to Mike Fratt, general manager and head buyer at Homer’s Records. Fratt said what’s driving the decline in sales over the past two years is the “huge reduction in (physical inventory) and square feet devoted to music retail at mass merchants” like Best Buy and Target.
“This is driving many people to online stores like Amazon,” Fratt said. “Non-traditional sales (online stores, non-music retail, non-mass merchant) biz was way up again this year. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to make up the difference, as many consumers think (record) labels have stopped making CDs. We heard that comment a lot this holiday season.”
In fact, there are no plans to abandon compact disc production before the end of this decade, Fratt said. NARM (not the North American Registry of Midwives but the National Association of Recording Merchants) and the record labels project that sales of compact discs will remain an important part of the total retail music business through the next five years.
The big box stores’ retreat from music sales would seem to be boon for stand-alone record shops. Unfortunately, the shift came too late for many. According to The Wall Street Journal, the number of physical record stores dropped 77 percent between 2000 and 2010 and is expected to decline another 11.6 percent by 2016. HMV, Tower Records, Sam Goody’s and Virgin have all gone the way of the dinosaur.
Meanwhile, there are still about 2,000 independent music stores like Homer’s, according to the Huffington Post. And their sales are growing. Fratt said Homer’s CD sales were up last year in both dollars and units.
“Being up in dollars is significant because the average price of a CD has fallen to nearly $10 as labels have radically reduced prices in the last two years,” Fratt said. “We now have a quarter of our CD inventory below $8 and a third below $10.”
Fratt said music lovers who want to buy an entire album’s worth of music still choose physical over digital 65 percent of the time. “New music (digital sales) is driven by songs,” Fratt said. “Very much like the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s when 45 rpm’s drove the business before albums took off.”
But the other life blood for independent record stores is vinyl — that’s right, those old-fashioned records that you play with a record player, the format that everyone shoveled dirt over when the CD emerged as the medium of choice in the ‘90s.
For the fifth consecutive year, more vinyl albums were sold than in any other year since SoundScan launched in 1991, reported Billboard. In 2012, 4.55 million vinyl LPs were sold — up 18 percent compared to 2011′s then-record haul of 3.87 million. And 67 percent of those vinyl albums were purchased at independent music stores.
“While some indies are reporting lower CD sales for 2012, everyone was up in vinyl again,” Fratt said, adding that vinyl was “huge at Christmas, but was up all year long.”
So with all this in mind, when was the last time you bought a CD or a vinyl album?
Maybe even more important: When was the last time you printed out a photo you took with your cell phone? When was the last time you printed a letter or clipped a newspaper article? When was the last time you burned a DVD of a home movie? These were all activities we used to do regularly when we felt we needed a physical backup of our digital memories for fear that our computer hard drives would crash and we’d lose it all.
Today we have backups of everything, and backups of backups that reside in the mystical “cloud.” We’re becoming confident that our digital memories are secure (whether they are or not) and are throwing away the backups, clearing out the clutter, selling back our compact discs.
More than anything, it’s this new confidence in digital security that could kill off the compact disc once and for all as we begin to walk the digital tightrope without a net.
Some additional thoughts….
Fratt says that vinyl now represents almost 20 percent of Homer’s sales, and that they’re looking at building new fixtures to hold more vinyl product in the same space. As for labels going “digital only,” Fratt said a record label is more likely to go out of business before going that route. “There are still infrastructure costs associated with digital,” he said. “It is not cheaper to be digital-only.”
In addition to that, I’m not sure why a label would want to go “digital only.” I guess it would still control licensing and get a portion of the download revenue. But why would an artist want to be on a digital-only record label? The label maybe would pay for an album’s recording costs (studio time, producer) and help with promoting the album. The label also could help sell the artist’s publishing rights to television, movies and Madison Avenue. Certainly there’s cache to being associated with a brand like Saddle Creek, Sub Pop or Matador. Plus the artist could leverage the label’s connections for booking, tour management, etc.
Beyond that, I don’t know. These days a bands can record and release their own material digitally rather cheaply, but what good is having a record available for download if no one knows it exists?
* * *
If you ever wondered what kind of hi-jinx bands get into on the road, read Icky Blossoms’ tour diary, written by the frontwoman Sarah Bohling, who proves if the rock and roll thing doesn’t work out she can always have a successful career as a writer (or strip club owner). The article is right here at Paste.com.
* * *
Tonight at The House of Loom Chris Aponick presents Wintertime Beach Party with bands Sun Settings and Dads. This will be the last-ever performance by Sun Settings, according to the band’s Facebook page:
“It has been decided that we took Sun Settings to an end. Over the last year we did some Big things and we would like to take the next step and do even bigger things. Since everybody has different opinions, the best thing we can do is disband and move on to form new ideas. Don’t worry though there will be NEW NEW NEW things from the members of sun setting…“
Come bid them adieu tonight at House of Loom. The show starts at 9 p.m. and is absolutely free. More info here, including apparel suggestions.
* * *
Lazy-i Best of 2012
It’s winding down, folks. Only a few short days left to enter to win a copy of the Lazy-i Best of 2012 compilation CD. The collection includes songs by The Intelligence, Simon Joyner, Ladyfinger, Twin Shadow, Ember Schrag, Tame Impala, Paul Banks, Cat Power and a ton more. The full track listing is here (scroll to the bottom). To enter the drawing send an email with your name and mailing address to email@example.com. Hurry! Deadline is Jan. 15.
* * *
Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2013 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.