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Are Low Music Sales Simply Due to Bad Music?

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Guest post by Peter Getty.

In 1991, Nielsen Soundscan started tracking album sales around the world. Back then, this data gave us valuable insight into current tastemakers, what genres were growing in cultural significance, and generally who the world was listening to. Lately, Soundscan’s reports are nothing more than a simple reminder that the music industry is, well...f’d.

Soundscan has announced a dismal new benchmark. For the first time, album sales have dipped below four million for a single week. I never thought I’d say it – but thank goodness for Wiz Khalifa, whose album Blacc Hollywood was the week’s best-seller, adding 90,000 sales for the industry. At least he’s helping overall album sales.

Or is he?

What is happening to the music industry? It seems that they are battling against a world in which their product, songs and albums, can be downloaded free of charge. As a result, after fifteen years of this, sales continue to hit record lows.

But then I look at television. Their product had been available free of charge since its inception, after the up-front cost of a set. And most of it was bad for a long, long time. But now, television is experiencing this inexplicable renaissance.

So what’s the difference here? Where is music going so wrong where television has gone so right? I think the answer might be: quality.

Ten, twenty years ago, I knew a lot of people who had ditched television. It wasn’t much of a sacrifice. TV was bad, and we all knew it. And there was at least a little cache to those who had simply stopped watching.

Now the quality of a growing list of television shows arguably eclipses film. From the writing to the acting to the design…even special effects on occasion, are unsurpassed.

The Sopranos might have been the first to really change the game. The show was a wakeup call for intelligent & savvy adults that there was programming worthy of their time. Then came The Wire. Then Breaking Bad. Then True Detective. And somewhere along the way, the entire bar had been raised. Now we all pay for television. What a trick!

Music, on the other hand, hasn’t evolved in the same way. They seem to be stuck back in a time when they could find an act that appealed to enough young people, then market it until it sold. Intelligent & savvy adults looking for more substance can just head to Yoshi’s for a show.

Of the top ten albums sold so far in 2014, two are installments of NOW, and number one is the soundtrack to Frozen. The music industry at large isn’t looking for superb musicians, complex arrangements, new modes, interesting or provoking messages, high concepts, or true auteurs. If they were, there would be more of all of it.

Imagine how exciting that would be, if music was being released and marketed of such high quality that intelligent & savvy adults were talking about it. Imagine if music was good again?

When I hear that Wiz Khalifa has topped the charts in the official worst week of charts ever, I can’t say I’m surprised. In their review of his new album, the AV Club calls the rapper “a characterless interloper [who's] rapping a step behind whatever beat he’s on.” Sounds about right.

And we blame the music industry’s collapse on the internet?


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