Record Company Blues

Another article I wrote for ACES Magazine:

“Record Company Blues” 

-Ken Dunckley 

About ten or fifteen years ago, I remember reading an article in the Wall Street Journal that claimed record companies during the late '90s were trying to hatch a plan by which compact discs could be fixed with expiration dates. This plan emerged in the wake of Napster's growing success with their file-sharing software, leaving the record industry scrambling to adjust to a perceived loss of revenue but lost steam when Metallica sued that company out of business. Since then, sales of CDs and other hard copies of music have fallen to such a degree that by 2014, the only pop music recording artist in the US to have a platinum album (meaning sales of over a million units) was Taylor Swift. The outlook for the CD's continued existence seems doleful yet vinyl has made an unexpected comeback at the same time. This comeback isn't enough to change the fortunes of the record industry but it suggests an odd trend: Why would the consumer put up money for albums on vinyl rather than digital formats that are easier to find, and in many cases available for free? 

I pondered this question while reading an article by a European record executive who reported that CDs are still huge sellers in Germany and Japan. Apparently, 85% of music sales in Japan are comprised of CD formats while Germany boasts 700 CD retail outlets that are regularly frequented by consumers. This article was from 2014, the same year that the aforementioned Ms. Swift scored her platinum album in the States. The author's contention was that CDs still sell and would still turn a profit had the American recording industry not turned its back on them. The buzzword right now is on streaming and the sites that provide it, like Spotify, are apparently the future of music. 

I call B.S. 

I still buys CDs. I don't buy vinyl because the albums are overpriced and I haven't had a turntable since I was 15. I distinctly remember putting away my vinyl when I got a CD player for my 18th birthday. In that three year span, I listened to cassettes (remember them?) and bought both formats well into my twenties. I still have both to this day largely because I have a medium on which to play them (it's a Sony boombox purchased from Amazon) and because most of them are still playable-which I can't say about most of my vinyl, sadly. The other reason for playing them is their portability. Open my car and you'll be sure to have CDs spill onto you if you open the glove compartment. Even after acquiring an iPod last year, I've continued to purchase at least 20 CDs a year outside of any downloads from iTunes and similar sites. 

This behavior flies in the face of current industry marketing strategies and I know whom the culprit is: teenagers. Once viewed as the cash-cow demographic for the entertainment industry, teenagers are directly responsible for its ailing health. I teach high school and not a single one of my students has said that they pay for music over the past five years that I've been asking this question. About half admit that they illegally download movies, sometimes before a movie even comes out. These post-Napster children are being courted by clueless record companies who wonder why sales are down when the target audience has been conditioned to think that file sharing without compensation is the norm. It's flogging not just a dead horse but using a noodle as the whip. 

It seems to me that the record industry's woes are a result of pursuing the wrong audience. People who grew up with vinyl and compact discs are hardwired to want something tangible as part of their musical purchase. Remember when CDs came in ridiculously long boxes because record companies feared that the consumer would feel shafted in buying a disc a quarter the size of a record album but cost a few dollars more? Their fears proved unwarranted. Having something to unwrap satisfies the consumption need-the rest is up to the quality of the music. Baby boomers and Gen Xers are also a demographic that has this silly idea that music is something that one has to pay for and coincidentally, tend to have more disposable income than today's teens. 

Just something to think about...

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