Ken C. Pohlmann
Signals: I Live My Life a Quarter Mile at a Time
Who uttered that famous declaration? Was it: a) Confucius, b) Friedrich Nietzsche, c) Vin Diesel, d) Dominic Toretto? Of course, that is a trick question because both c) and d) are correct. The movie was The Fast and the Furious, a cinematic masterpiece about street racing and skid marks.
Which brings us to the bar graph. It shows total music album sales (physical and download) in the U.S. from 2000 to 2017. Album sales were once the revenue champion of the music business. Not anymore. We bought 785 million albums in 2000 and a mere 169 million in 2017. If you’re in the business of selling albums, right about now you’re downsizing and sending out your résumé. Oh, hang on, someone just texted me.
Anyway, album sales are down. There are lots of reasons. For starters, by their nature, albums lend themselves to physical media, and sales of physical media aren’t great. LP sales in 2017 were 14 million, modestly up from 2016. That’s good. But CD sales were 88 million and downloaded album sales were 66 million, both down bigly. Are album sales declining because we don’t like albums or because we don’t like the physical media that holds them? I think—wait, I have to check my Facebook page.
So, anyway, I don’t think the real problem is the physical media. We’ve been happily buying physical music media for 100 years, and I don’t see why we should now hate physical media. Rather, I think, the problem is short attention span. When you buy an album, you’re making a potential time commitment that fewer and fewer of us are willing to make. Forty-five minutes of music? That’s an impossibly unreasonable demand for someone’s undivided attention. Oh shoot—i have to answer this e-mail.
Where was I? Well, when you buy an album, you might have to sit down and listen to the whole thing. And to do that uninterrupted, without distraction, as a continuous piece of entertainment, seems unlikely. Sure, we used to sit down in a chair precisely aligned between two speakers, preferably behind closed doors, and do just that. But doing that today is just— whoa! Did you see that Tweet?
So, instead of committing to big chunks of music, we’re choosing to not commit at all. Instead of buying long-duration music, we choose to nosh on streams. In 2012 there were 90 billion song streams; in 2017 there were 618 billion. You see why all the people in album companies are sending their résumés to the streaming companies. With song streams, each song only lasts a few minutes, the stream content is constantly morphing, and it’s easy to tune in, turn away, and tune back in. This is ideal for a lifestyle that embraces multitasking, which is a polite way of describing not really paying attention.
Sorry, I spaced out for a minute. Here’s something else to worry about. The one tiny bright spot in album sales, LP sales, is being propped up by what I’ll charitably call “legacy” albums—that is, reissues of old albums from the olden days when people still bought lots of albums. For example, in 2017, the top-selling LP album was The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (72,000 copies), a recording that’s 50 years old. And the second-best-selling LP album in 2017? The Beatles’ Abbey Road (66,000 copies). At some point, the reissue well will run dry— ha! Look at that crazy skateboard video!
So anyway, it takes about 10 seconds to race a fast quarter mile. It’s good that cars are getting faster because, frankly, paying attention to anything for more than 10 seconds is getting harder and harder to do. That’s because—look! A chicken!
Instead of buying longduration music, we choose to nosh on streams.