Ken C. Pohlmann

Signals: I Live My Life a Quar­ter Mile at a Time

Sound & Vision - - CONTENTS - ken C. pohlmann

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.

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