This great data visualisation from the NY Times comes to us via a really fascinating website called Information is Beautiful. It represents the sales in billions of today’s dollars of the various music formats over time.
They claim it represents the dwindling death knell of the music industry. That’s not quite right (even leaving aside the nonsense assertion that the record business = the music industry). While put together in aggregate, the overall graph would show a larger, fatter, longer increase and decline, what this graph does not show is equally interesting.
The trailing tail to the right of the graph seems to indicate the death of music business. But look to the left. This graph does not start at the beginning of the music business. And nor does it start only a short while after the beginning of the music business.
It starts in 1973.
I don’t know about you, but I was around in 1973. I wasn’t very old, but I was old enough to be aware of music. It had been around long before I had. And even though the graph would have been tiny – at least in comparison to the uncharacteristically massive spike in CD sales around 1999 – there was no crisis in the music business then.
My guess, in fact, was that there was opportunity. In 1973, the small numbers meant that people who sought to do new and interesting things were able to do those new and interesting things. Less was at stake (at least, in aggregate) and so people took risks.
New and innovative kinds of music flourished in the margins. Funk, disco, punk, psychedelic, metal, and reggae all started to emerge as significant forces from that decade. Lots of tiny labels did amazing and sometimes incredibly profitable things. Risk-takers were sometimes massively rewarded. Those who kicked at the edges often flourished.
Skip forward to 1999 – ten years ago now – and you witness the height of corporatism in the recorded music business. A world of a few stars selling millions of copies of safe and frequently dull music. But most importantly, the business people who were teens in 1973 were able to take the music they loved from their youth and turn it into a multi-billion dollar industry.
And while the interesting new genres have been created in the margins all through that history, it’s the forms (and their often watered-down derivatives) loved by those execs that have massively prospered through the recorded music boom era.
Of course, music didn’t start in 1973. Or 1923 for that matter – and nor did the ability to make money from it. The last 35 years provides us with an interesting historical anomaly as far as that graph is concerned.
The boom and bust pattern of each recorded music format adds up to an overall rise and decline of corporatism in the recorded music industries. Culturally, this could well be something to celebrate.
Personally, I’m hopeful for new and interesting musical forms and genres coming from the margins and being able to reach a significant audience.
It’s cheaper to experiment now. It’s easier to reach an audience than ever before, and the economics are such that you don’t need for corporations to be making billions in profit in order to make a decent living at it.
I’m not saying that this is the best time in history for music. I’m actually hopeful that we haven’t yet seen the best time for music. It’s even possible that the biggest selling record of all time hasn’t been made yet.
My point is that the graph above only represents a crisis for a particular way of organising music business, and not for music business itself – and certainly not for music.
In fact, if we’re clever about it, this might be one of those golden ages for musical culture that seem to coincide with the skinny bits of that graph.