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Albums are out, streaming is in. Did the music industry seal it’s own fate by failing to adapt? 17 Jul 2016

Thanks to some recent figures published by Billboard, news outlets (mainstream and music) across the western world are reporting on the fact that album sales slumped to an all time low while streaming is taking over at an all time rate (Pitchfork, Music Feeds, NME, etc).

The Billboard article sent media into a flurry, reporting a drop of 16.9% for the first half of 2016 for album sales while streaming rose 58.7% for the same half year time frame. I have no concerns about this trend, but I am very concerned at the fact that this is reported on as though it’s a surprise to everyone.

If this is a surprise to you then you are what is wrong with the music industry.

Didn’t we see the same headlines last year regardless how bad album sales had gotten? Also wasn’t 2014 setting a historic low for album sales? Actually, more than 5 whole years ago we also had the same headlines and stories about music sales.

The first streaming service, Rhapsody, was launched in 2001, however it wasn’t until the second half of that decade that streaming began to get some traction, with services such as Grooveshark (2006) and Spotify (2008) coming out of the woodwork. Since then, streaming and illegal downloads have grown while album sales heavily declined (whether physical or not). In fact, I would hazard a guess that a lot of people predicted the downfall of album sales back in the turn of the millennium when Napster was a big enough threat to be sued.

So, why did the music industry spend so much time on laws and lawsuits rather than innovation and marketing? Why are key players such as Amazon and Apple just joining the party now?

The answer could be in the fact that the music industry appears to have constantly failed to identify the opportunities in changing times and instead spent their efforts seeking short term gains. Sure, they ushered in low cost plastic CDs like no ones business, but when a clear trend became visible that people no longer wanted to buy music in physical form, preferably without paying for it, they ignored it. OK, maybe they didn’t ignore it, they did worse – they tried to fight it with lawsuits while squeezing all they could out of the dying CD market (as the album sales reports and articles from all those years highlight for us).

We know for a fact that during the recession demand for music did not just disappear, in fact music ticket sales experienced an increase during the recession. So if demand didn’t change, then what did? – consumers needs did. The need for on demand, disposable, portable and very, very cheap music is what all the research and sales trends told us.

I don’t know about you but that sounds a lot like we've been crying out for streaming for nearly the last ten years, a solution that was already well into existence at that stage.

streaming met changing consumer needs far better than albums

And yet, the industry is still trying to resist streaming with artists like David Byrne, Thom Yorke, The Black Keys and even Will I Am “calling out” streaming services and preaching against them. Sure, I understand that there may be some updating and development required for streaming to work the way everyone wants it to, the problem is that you can’t adapt or grow to utilise something if you’re fighting it.

So did the music industry seal it’s fate by it’s failure to adapt?

The answer is a big resounding no, the industry will always survive as there will always be a demand for music, but it’s impossible not to wonder if we will make the same mistakes and resist the next inevitable change in consumer trends. In an age where major labels have purchased stakes in Spotify, we still report on the demise of album sales like it’s relevant and key consumer bases such as Amazon are only just coming to the party, you also can’t help but wonder where we could be right now if the industry had adapted and grown with changing consumer needs for the last 20 years rather than fight it.