in Music

Record sales as a temporary blip

I grew up as a musically-enthusiastic child of the ’80s and ’90s, watching Top of the Pops on Thursday night and talking about it with my friends at school the next day, reading Smash Hits, listening to the top-40 singles countdown as I got ready for bed on Sunday evening and generally paying attention to what was happening in the charts. At some point, all of this dropped away for me. The singles chart was no longer meaningful. Part of this was me getting older and part of this was the fact that it didn’t take quite as much to get a hit anymore. The rise of satellite and cable TV as well as the Internet were factors too—there was so much choice that my friends and I no longer had the shared experience of listening to, reading about and watching the same bands through the same limited channels. This whole transition felt like a general decline.

A couple of years ago I caught a programme on Radio 4 which was discussing the state of the music business. They made the point that young people now expect to be able to download and listen to whatever they like for free and that an effect of this is that live concerts have now become the primary ways in which (big and popular) artists such as Prince, U2 etc. make their money. The situation of old had reversed: in the past, live shows were adverts for singles and albums and now those singles and albums are adverts for seeing your favourite band in a live show.

Or so I thought. I’m currently in the middle of reading the “extended special edition” of part one of Mark Lewisohn‘s incredible Beatles biography which details the history of the band right up to the end of 1962, before they had their first hit. This passage was very interesting and made me think back to that Radio 4 programme:

Still, the everyday business of management was the stage. No ‘pop stars’ could live off broadcasting fees and only the very biggest of chart stars could live off record royalties, so minuscule were the percentages. No one even tried. The sole object of making records was to attract a bigger profile and so earn higher fees from concert and ballroom shows – and, if the artists were lucky to be chosen, to appear in summer seasons in seaside resorts.

So perhaps the recent change isn’t a decline per se but rather a reversion to an old normal. Perhaps the focus we had around records instead of live performance as we were growing up was a drawn-out, temporary blip?

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