On the surface, this may appear like an obvious question. Album sales measure the number of people who buy an artist’s music. Let’s look a little deeper at what album and track sales are an actual measure of.
Many artists that experience high volumes of downloads on p2p networks also experience brisk sales. The days of mega-platinum albums are pretty much at an end, so I’m defining brisk sales as between 50,000 to 7 million units sold. This is abroad spectrum, as it includes middle tier artists as well. The future of music will most like include far more middle tier artists, making a decent living, and fewer multi million dollar pop sensations.
The actions of Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and Saul Williams are not meant to devalue music to nothing. These artists want people to buy their music. They pay their mortgages, buy their gas, and feed their kids off music sales and gigs. The intention behind these artists’ actions are to move forward a major shift in the music business. The sooner major labels are out of the picture, the sooner our culture can have a conversation about the value of music. It;s great that people can choose how much they want to pay to support artists. At the same time, all of us in the middle or lower tiers of the industry cannot sustain a vibrant career without revenue. Digital music sales are expanding rapidly; obviously people are buying music.
Consider that people can get almost any music they want for free. With a small amount of effort, any album can be found, downloaded, and added to a collection as an MP3. So when people do buy music, what does it measure?
The Love of the Music
Album and track sales measure artist support, and appreciation of the music itself. When major albums are leaked well in advance of release dates and still sell well, it’s clear that the people buying it don’t have to. Why would people buy something they can get for free? It’s not consistent with a capitalist mentality.
Music is in a post capitalist environment, and totally uncharted territory for any commodity. There is no scarcity of music, and the supply outstrips the demand by miles. When people buy an album, they are saying “I like this music or artist enough to support them. I want them to continue to make great music, and I am moved and touched by what they create.”
Sales dynamics and trends for non-major label releases follow a completely different set of rules than mainstream music sales do. Mega-Artists that are joining the ranks of independent musicians aren’t breaking new ground as much as they are creating a public awareness of the way the music business works for most of the artists in it. For those of us in the trenches of our careers, they are putting a spotlight on how we do business.
Free downloads from major artists are simply a proving ground that in the post major label era of music, people will still buy music they support. The only difference between downloading an album for free on an artist site or off Bit Torrent is the amount of effort one has to put in (i.e. clicking a link instead of typing a name into a search prompt).
Although accurate sales totals for In Rainbows won’t be available till the end of the year, it’s clear people are willing to pay for music when they are not forced to. Now that big time acts are involved in the independent music world, there’s no denying that people buy music they love, even if it’s free. The only thing that has changed with In Rainbows is the kind of market analysis we are seeing in major media publications. Major labels can’t whitewash entertainment news about the reality of the business anymore.
When people have access to the music they want for free, and without being treated like criminals, supporting the artist is a natural action to take. it’s when we are treated like criminals, or asked to pay large sums of money for long dead artists, that the public begins to resent buying music.
The Bottom Line: Album sales no longer measure marketing ability or brand placement, they measure people’s love of the music.
What do you think?
What do album sales measure?
Are Radiohead/Saul Williams/NIN breaking new ground, are are they amplifying a message that most of us already hear?