What Do Singles Sales Tell Us About The Health Of The Music Industries?

Here’s an interesting data set – a list of the best selling singles ever, divided into physical and digital. It lists anything with ‘verified’ sales of above 5 million (though those numbers are often rightly questioned because of the way that ‘sales’ are reported – there are 185 references at the bottom of the wiki page 🙂 )…


One of the interesting bits for me is the time span of each era – the physical sales cover 1935 (Bing Crosby, Silent Night: 30 million sales – at a time when it must’ve been owned by pretty much everyone on the planet that had a record player, was before albums existed, probably sold even more copies as sheet music and was a song in the public domain!) through to 2004 (Green Day’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams: 7 million physical copies, of a track that was also on an album that sold 15 million too.) So that’s a 69 year span, with 128 singles selling more than 5 million copies. It’s worth keeping in mind what percentage of the records released those were (how many records had even been made, let alone were stocked in shops, by the end of the 40s/50s/60s etc…)

The digital list covers 2004-2012 (8 years), and has 104 singles selling more than 5 million copies. All of which also appeared on (numerous) albums, were licensed for films/games, earned some money for streaming/youtube/other usage, and were no doubt torrented extensively. But, crucially, none of them required any plastic discs to be made and shipped around the world. No shops to stock them, no trucks to carry them across the country… So in terms of where the money went, far less of the gross revenue needed to go on the fixed cost of physical manufacture and distribution of a scarce good. 

What does this prove?

Nothing. At all.

However, it does point to a discrepancy in the ‘sky is falling‘ narrative. The figures that generally get quoted and turned into handy/scary infographics are the useful ones to whatever position people are adopting.

‘Music sales are down’, as a statement, is wholly misleading.

Why? well, for example, when it’s cited outside of any mention of how many other things are sold that contain massive quantities of licensed (ie paid-for) music (computer games, DVD boxed sets, film and TV downloads, mobile apps, kids toys, ringtones), or what ‘kinds’ of sales are down – where is the ‘loss’ happening? Is it back catalogue (and how much of the sales peak in the 90s was actually people replacing their tapes/vinyl on CD – and therefor nothing at all to do with the success/failure of new artists/work), is it to artists whose labels are still trying to throw speculative marketing money at a project in the hope of making it back, as though it’s still 1992? How much of the ‘sales are down’ figure is about it being spread out, massively, globally, with a HUGE upsurge in music participation. (I have pretty much total distain for any point that suggests increased lay participation in the making of music is in any way a bad thing. Talking about there being ‘too much music’ or the market being ‘saturated’ is so horribly pejorative and simplistic, it’s hardly worth engaging with.)

…Also, does the ‘music sales are down’ narrative take into consideration the GINOURMOUS drop in the fixed cost of making a recording (choosing to go into a REALLY great, expensive studio is no longer a fixed cost, but a discretionary one – not being able to afford it is like opening a warehouse in Palo Alto instead of Montana and then complaining that your fixed costs are too high…) Gross figures are a fairly clumsy way of measuring ‘success’. Net figures are a much better measure of sustainability. Because, of course, the first step on the path to sustainability is almost always to learn how to spend less.

..Aaand, not to mention the proportion of the music economy that now exists outside of the industry measurement tools like Soundscan. (the vast majority of my own music sales money doesn’t feature in anyone’s aggregate figures cos it’s not reported to anyone except the UK tax dept.)

The problem with any kind of blunt comparative data is that there are so many kinds of sales, so many ways of making music, so many more reasons for making music, so many more ways to measure ‘success’, so many more ways of making some money from either writing or recording music, and SO MANY MORE people making recordings of music and making them (nominally) commercially available.

It’s a situation we’ve never encountered before, it’s a transformative, not incremental change, it’s exciting, new and it’s totally understandable that people who for obvious reasons assumed that business-as-usual was the ‘right’ path to pursue, who as a matter of course attached some kind of moral dimension to that based on their own fear of losing their job, are telling a hopelessly incomplete story.

As Dave Allen points out in this rather useful New Yorker article, it’s ALWAYS been hard to be a creative musician. The vast majority of music making has always been amateur, we just have a much smoother gradient now from ‘brilliant amateur’ to ‘rich professional’, that doesn’t require as a matter of course that we pass through the ’10 years in epic debt to a record label’ stage.

Throw in any kind of motivation for making music that doesn’t involve getting massively rich and being in ‘the charts’ and you’ve got yourself an argument that, to quote again my most favourite of Polish sayings, is ‘not my circus, not my monkeys’.

Their industry is not my industry, and even so their industry is still huge, any failure being either a dishonest construct to try and apply political pressure for an even less level playing field, or perhaps the opinion of someone who’s spent less than 10 minutes properly thinking about it.

So, think deeper, question everything, and take limited data sets with a pinch of salt :) 

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