Opinion: Spirits In The Material World

Posted on 24th January, 2020

Opinion: Spirits In The Material World

David Price argues that the modern music map cleverly combines the virtual with the physical…

Cue the fanfare, because the British music business is back! 2019 was its best year since 2006, which was the industry's last hurrah before the 'credit crunch' hit the UK, USA and Europe. Then it went into a tailspin, only to finally start growing again in 2015. Last year, it ended up within shouting distance from its former peak – the equivalent of 154 million albums were sold, compared to 161.4 million in 2006.

These figures – just published by music industry trade body, the British Phonographic Industry - show that 2020 should be the best year ever for UK music sales. Last year's sales were up by a solid 7.5%, despite uncertainty over Brexit, the world economy and China. This is heartening news for any audiophile because the music industry is the sun around which the hi-fi world orbits. Yet what is especially significant is what the statistics tell us about how people are now consuming music…

[Photo: Flickr user chriszak]

Fifteen years ago, when Coldplay, Keane, Eminem and Beyoncé were topping the charts, people mostly bought their sounds on Compact Disc, but not anymore. There were 114 billion music streams in 2019, a 3,000% increase on 2012 – which was the first year that yearly figures were published. There was a 26% rise in streaming from 2018 to 2019, which now accounts for three-quarters of what the BPI calls 'album equivalent sales'. Last year hit the one hundred billion stream mark for the first time, a hugely symbolic moment. 

This time around, a new generation of artists is driving the mass music market. For example, young Brit Lewis Capaldi's Someone You Loved was the most streamed song of last year, played over 228 million times. Aussie artist Tones and I's Dance Monkey spent eleven weeks at the top of the UK's Official Singles Chart in 2019, too. But the story isn't all about streaming, because when you delve deeper into the numbers, Compact Discs are still playing their part. This seems an odd claim to make when sales dropped by 26.5% in 2019, but CD is – according to the BPI – still acting as a “kingmaker” for number one albums. 

The stats tell us that an album is far more likely to make it to the top of the charts if it's out on CD. The BPI reports that in the majority of weeks last year, physical media formed over half the chart-eligible sales of the number one album. Indeed, there were thirteen weeks when physical media was over three-quarters of the sales of album chart-toppers. So the little silver frisbee still packs a punch of sorts, underwriting the sales success of a good number of new album releases. Indeed, a useful way to understand this is in terms of mainstream artists needing CD to prosper, while niche and/or singles artists rely on streaming to get the music to their audiences. It's a fascinating division of labour…

Things get even more intriguing as you delve further into the data. Despite its overall numerical decline, physical media is really raising eyebrows. Vinyl LPs are in their twelfth consecutive year of growth, with 4.3 million LPs sold in the UK in 2019. Liam Gallagher's Why Me? Why Not was 'top of the pops' for vinyl – selling nearly 30,000 copies – and Billie Eilish and Lewis Capaldi sat alongside classic artists like Joy Division and Queen. LPs now account for one in every eight albums sold; this is an increase of 4.1 per cent on the previous year, and a rise of over 2,000% compared to its all-time low in 2007.

Believe it or not, music cassettes sold the largest amount in fifteen years; with over 80,000 sold, it could be in six figures by the end of 2020. This is just a fraction (0.1%) of total music consumption but is the highest since 2004 when 99,000 were sold. Robbie Williams' The Christmas Present was the fastest-selling cassette album since Now 52 in July 2002. Other artists to sell meaningful amounts on cassette were Lana Del ReyKylie Minogue and Madonna.

So, physical media sales may be decreasing, but CDs, LPs and cassettes are now selling to specific market niches – many of which are either growing in volume of sales, or value. One example of the latter is the special edition and/or box set phenomenon; in 2019 Queen's Platinum Collection sold over 100,000 copies on CD, Don't Stop – 50 Years of Fleetwood Mac and the 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of The Beatles' Abbey Road also shifted in serious amounts. Vinyl LPs and now music cassettes are largely the province of cool 'alternative' artists, classic artists or largely undiscovered indies, buoyed by initiatives like National Album Day and Record Store Day.

As British music fans get increasingly into streaming, physical media is taking on multiple roles. First, it's acting as a 'kingmaker' in the mainstream album market, and second, it's giving collectors the chance to own rare or special box sets. Thirdly, it's a way for alternative artists to get their products out. Many music buyers are still – it seems – living in a material world. 

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David Price's avatar

David Price

David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.

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