What Do Album Sales Measure?

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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?

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Comments

  1. I agree with a lot you say.

    Plus, I don’t have an IPOD, I don’t listen to music walking around the city, I don’t wan’t to go to the trouble of downloading music or filling up my hard drive.

    I buy CD’s of music that is really important to me and I play at home or in the car. I like to collect them. The new way is of no interest to me at all.

    By the way I get CDs very cheap on line. “LIke new” and “Used” CDs are very affordable and I have been completely satisfied with the quality.

    Paul in MInneapolis

  2. A different matt says:

    I like your analysis but disagree with your conclusion: “The Bottom Line: Album sales no longer measure marketing ability or brand placement, they measure people’s love of the music.”

    Just because music is pushed down to the masses from on high doesn’t mean marketing and placement no longer plays a role. It’s just that that role has been decentralized.

    I think this: “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.” is more a testament of our Orwellian practice of “free markets” than it is of some new business paradigm.

    It turns out people have a more diverse taste in music than Sony is comfortable with. Now that people aren’t reliant upon a few large corporations for their music, it’s going to take more than Jay-Z or Justin Timberlake to sustain an industry with their layers upon layers of management and middlemen. Large corporations are simply inefficient when producers have no logistical or administrative or legal roadblocks to their consumers.

    That’s my unsolicited .02.

  3. I’m not going to speak for others, but you have hit the nail on the head as far as my emerging buying habits are concerned. I will support people I want to support. It could be a musical artist, it could involve giving a kid a used computer for school, or it could mean helping someone with utility bills. I don’t care about tax deductions or, in the case of music, whether I’ve paid for something I already have. Buying music for me today transcends exchange. A lot of things for me are beginning to transcend the notion of exchange … perhaps this is part of the post-capitalist era you are referring to …

  4. Right! I’ve even paid for videos on ITunes after I had a high quality free copy — we spend to reward excellence. It helps when a band knows how to make a psuedo-personal connection with their on-line tools. “These are good people, they deserve my support” is a sentiment that will get my Amex out. It’s a real art to get people invested in the band.

    It’s probably not uniquely American, but I do think American consumers like to reward companies when they do it right. Culturally we know that, collectively, we get what we pay for. I think that is capitalistic.

  5. Mark In Irvine says:

    I still buy albums. I buy them because I want the artwork, the lyrics, the “backup” copy. I buy to support the artists that I enjoy. I also buy what appeals to be in the record shop – I browse certain sections that interest me (world, for example), and when I see something that looks intriguing, I buy. I’ve ended up with a few stinkers, sure, but more often or not I get what I pay for: a new experience, exposure to a new (for me) artist, and a broader collection of music. Some outlets (Borders comes to mind) have a feature that lets me list to snippets (or more) from the CD tracks, and if something that I try out this way (having first been led to it by the album art or something else on the box that grabs me) bears up to listening, I buy. Free on-line music was interesting for a while, but nothing replaces browsing and flipping through the CD boxes.

  6. Paul,

    Thanks for your comment. Keep in mind that when you buy CDs like new and used, artists don’t get royalties.

    -M

  7. The web is saturated with articles and blogs about the death of the music industry & what Madonna, Radiohead and the like in collusion with web 2.0 digital models and P2P sites are doing to the industry … “killing it”?
    But this IS the new industry … a place where the majority of content is created and consumed for free, where the creativity embodied on your musical content IS the value attributed to it.
    A place where the merit in music conquers all. Or at least in the years to come it will.
    It is my absolute belief that “where music leads all else will follow” .. that is the breakdown of the commercial music industry to elements of trade, file sharing, swapping & purchase will one day encompass our whole online commercial structure.
    Merit and creative truth will rule, meaningless content (read “pop”) will simply become ignored meaninglessness, and it will struggle for any traction.

    The sharing and spread across digital platforms of all online services and products will occur, with value being judged by merit. This will occur whether we are talking about a music track, a new product or a simple day to day service.
    Advertisers will no longer be able to saturate our TV screens with useless products and thinly veiled lies about necessity – purchase value & immediacy will be decided by the purchaser.

    ok, …. deeper : the human mind is a spark of the almighty consciousness of the creator, imagination and creativity are the doors from which this consciousness emerges.
    As human minds develop further and become more fully tuned to the nature of spirit, by stopping thought, abandoning knowledge & trusting intuition, creativity also becomes more fully tuned to this truth. That is, music / knowledge / content / product is freed from the shackles of blind commercialism, prejudice or banality will simply cut through and gain traction by the simple fact of its creative merit.
    The deeper the self realization of a person and his/her creativity, the more he/she influences the whole universe by subtle creative vibrations.

    Silence is the potent carrier of the present tense. Every sound or action comes from silence & dies back into the ocean of silence.

    Death to the music industry, long live the industry of creativity.

  8. Wow, Gareth.

    That is powerful and moving…..

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