This Week’s Album Sales Lowest in Billboard History: An Open Letter to Record Labels

For the week ending May 30, the U.S. music industry sold a total of 4,984,000 albums, according to Nielsen Soundscan. This figure, which includes new and catalog releases, represents the fewest number of albums sold in one week since Soundscan began compiling this data in 1994.

And that’s not all: While there’s no exact way to compare last week’s total against imprecise, pre-Soundscan tallies, Billboard estimates that weekly album sales volume could, in fact, be at its lowest point since the early 1970s.

From a Billboard article published today, June 3, 2010, on the current sales figures on the Billboard charts.

Music is not dead–it’s just changing.

People aren’t buying CD’s anymore because they’re overpriced, unwieldy, and outdated. That isn’t my own personal perspective on the matter (I’m the dork blowing paychecks on limited edition vinyls and super rare CD singles from France), but it certainly is for the vast majority of modern music listeners.

Digital outlets such as iTunes, Amazon, and Beatport are working to a degree (albeit slowly), but there needs to be a much more massive and all-encompassing initiative.

While I personally don’t host music without direct consent from record labels or artists (I don’t have time to fight copyright battles, nor do I particularly enjoy popularizing a campaign prematurely), I fully understand the fact that music blogs have become the forum through which most fans consume music.

MP3 blogs crop up and die just as quickly as they’re created, but they keep coming back–and in greater numbers by the day. It’s a movement that has gone too far at this point to be stopped.

It’s not just blogs, though. If a song can’t be found on a blog, it’s in a forum. If it’s not in a forum, it’s on a torrent. If it’s not on a torrent, it’s being sent directly from person to person. The cycle can never and will never be stopped when a song is leaked. That is, unless the Internet becomes policed to an unconstitutional degree. (Then again, I’m not saying it won’t come to that either.)

The realm of streaming radio services like Pandora seem to be a good place to start exploring, as most casual music listeners are content simply streaming their music. Get some marketing masterminds to conceive a pay-for-streaming system that no one could possibly live without. (Spotify, for instance, is especially intriguing.)

Artists are making money in different ways now. Touring, merchandise, branding, and promotion have become vastly more important in terms of generating revenue. There’s a reason your Beyonce stadium tickets are $300 (aside from her own personal vanity)–no one’s taking that album off the shelf at Target. At least, not nearly as much as they were in 1998.

Other artists have since taken to different methods in order to fund their own albums. Patrick Wolf memorably endeavored into a successful grassroots sponsorship/funding model for his 2009 album, The Bachelor. Using Bandstocks, investors in the project (fans, basically) were treated to benefits depending on the amount they pledge, including tickets and merchandise.

Radiohead‘s pay-what-you-want system during the promotion of their 2007 album In Rainbows is by far one of the most, though the idea still seems iffy in dealing with artists that aren’t already established superstars.

Further on in the above Billboard article, the writer proves why the mainstream label heads simply don’t get it. “UMGD’s Urie [Jim Urie, president of Universal] cites this week’s album total as “all the more reason why everyone in the industry should be focused on getting the U.S. Congress to introduce legislation that makes the Internet service providers our allies in fighting piracy.”

Wrong. The key is to stop focusing your efforts on ending piracy and start getting inventive. Put your funds into research and marketing. Find a new distribution system that labels can effectively use for listeners to purchase music digitally at a low cost (or none, perhaps through advertising revenue). The movie and television industries are already taking leaps to make the shift–so should music.

The key to fighting the battle against music piracy is not limitation, but rather innovation.

Find a new way to market music digitally, instead of holding dear to the ancient, impractical institutions of a time in which the Internet never existed.

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