Monday, August 30, 2010


The music must change for we're chewing a bone
We soared like the sparrow hawk flied then we dropped like a stone
-The Who, "The Music Must Change"

I've posted several times on this blog about the decline of newspapers and news magazines; they are almost all sliding down the inevitable slope to oblivion or greatly reduced significance. Yet they aren't the only media which is suffering from changes in the Internet age.

Books, for example, aren't selling very well. The latest data I can dig up is for January of 2010, which showed a .7% decrease in American book sales. In 2009 the overall drop in sales was 1.2%, but the biggest loss was in book stores, which saw almost a 7% drop in book sales. I try to buy my books locally, but I buy then used and if they aren't around here, I buy them online. Honestly, given the fiction that's being pushed, I'm not surprised sales are down. As traditional book sales drop, downloads are increasing, but not fast enough to take up the overall drop in sales. People just aren't reading as much as they used to, and that's a damn shame.

There's also some indication that e-book sales were more trendy than a shift in consumer habits, particularly at the educational level. They're still going up but the rise is beginning to plateau, as if almost everyone who really wants one of these has gotten one and the base of customers is not growing.

The number one book of last year? In fiction it was another derivative piece churned out by Dan Brown called The Lost Symbol. I looked down that list of top 100 fiction titles and saw nothing I wanted to read until I got down to The Professional by Robert Parker. Now I don't know if I'm just unrepresentative of the reading public, but I read 100 or more books a year, so its not like I am a light reader.

The nonfiction side was interesting. The number one book of the year for 2009? Going Rogue by Sarah Palin. Of the top 5, three were by conservative writers (Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government by Glenn Beck and Liberty & Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto by Mark R. Levin being the others). I wonder just how much the conservative book market is driving nonfiction sales, and whether publishers are noticing this, because it is not easy to get conservative nonfiction sold, let alone represented.

Elsewhere the changes continue. Video rental giant Blockbuster recently announced that they're going bankrupt in September. Hollywood Video has already closed every single one of its 35 stores in Oregon; they just can't compete with Netflix. Blockbuster is saying they'll be back, better than ever after restructuring but I'm highly skeptical.

Media analysts are saying the DVD is on its way out as a major distribution platform, to be replaced by streaming on demand Internet rentals. Personally I'd prefer to own discs of movies I really like, but at the same time, streaming lets me watch stuff I'd ordinarily never buy or even rent.

In the music industry, the story continues. For the last five years, album sales have been dropping, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Meanwhile digital sales have been increasing:

Album Sales
Album sales peaked in 2000 and have been on a downward trend ever since (with a brief rise in 2005 for which I cannot find the cause). People aren't just downloading more songs than ever, they just aren't buying as many, period. This isn't so much a new media problem (although downloads of songs continue to kill the music industry) as a content problem: most new music is just awful.

Look, Styx was big in the mid 1970s to early 1980s. My niece, born in the late 90's is a big Styx fan. There's nothing being put out in popular music now that has that kind of endurance and appeal. The bands being pushed are great for record companies because they will do what they're told and are easily marketed and packaged, but they aren't very inventive, creative, or skilled. And that means they don't last. People just don't want what they're getting from the record companies, but the companies can't see that, all they blame is downloads and peer-to-peer file sharing.

It isn't like major shifts in technology and media have never happened before. Each time in the past, some visionaries or clever businessmen saw what was happening and got ahead of it, and they ended up richer than Bill Gates' god. This time Netflix and Google look to be some of the people who're working the new media, and who knows who will be next. Its just frustrating to see the legacy media types floundering around helplessly, unable to adapt and face these changes.


Anonymous Daran said...

On the other hand, a graph for mobile services, such as mobile internet, ring tones and Apple store apps, or a graph of computer gaming, incl. MMORPGs, Xbox, Steam and Playstation network subscriptions would both show steady increases.

You are right though in that many new books, movies and albums feel like pale derivatives of stuff that we have seen before.

Boring content competing with new, alternative content: declining sales. And if that takes down the 'media-industrial complex' I'm all in favor.

9:51 AM, August 30, 2010  
Anonymous JoelAT said...

The music industry and the path it is taking was documented well in the movie Ford Fairlane, with the talentless Kyle Troy who was a pretty face being pushed as the next big thing, by the evil record executive.

9:56 AM, August 30, 2010  
Anonymous eric said...


Booty Time, Boot Time, Across The USaaaaaaaaay!

Love that crappy old movie.

10:26 AM, August 30, 2010  
Anonymous eric said...

One thing about album sales, I wonder how they factor in music subcription services? My wife and I have been Rhapsody subscribers for going on 5 years now, and as such we (legally) "consume" much more music than we used to, we just don't buy the albums.

10:28 AM, August 30, 2010  
Anonymous Christopher Taylor said...

I haven't seen any comparative data on that; my guess is that they're not making up as much on licensing and payments of that sort as they have lost in album sales but that's just a guess.

10:58 AM, August 30, 2010  

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