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What Does The Declining Price of Recorded Music Mean?

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That ever growing stack of CDs in your house, they turn into little furry woodland creatures at night when you sleep. It's true, because when you awake they've bred and multiplied, only with different names, different genres and different musical instruments. More than enough clutter to justify one of the most famous lines from the movie The Graduate: "plastics."

So we were happy to read that for the first time in history, sales of digital music downloads finally passed that of hard copy--CD, LP, etc. This news won't please everyone, but it's the new reality, or at least the one we're stuck with until another one comes along, and it will. Think Star Trek... "beam The Goat Rodeo Sessions into memory grid 81,678. Energize."

Along with the loss of all that paper, all that plastic, all that shipping, printing, manpower, etc., who pays $15-20 for a single recording these days? Not us.

We left a link on the home page for a good week or more to amazon because they were offering a ton of great recordings in the folk/bluegrass genre for $4.99, sometimes less. Last year, great new collections like those from Sarah Jarosz, Thile/Daves and many others were often on sale for even less. Sarah likely sold thousands of copies of her latest when it was on sale for $2.99. The amazon link is going to keep our attention for a long time. A few days ago they had over 1,600 recordings on sale at that price. This morning? Just over 40. OK, so it fluctuates. We get it. Note to amazon: looking for bluegrass and folk recordings mixed in with modern country is incredibly annoying.

iTunes, another great destination for digital purchases is an easy way to pick up a great recording for $9.99 (sometimes less, sometimes more).

And we're not even touching on all the digital subscription options. More music than you can listen to for $X.XX per month, unlimited usage. Sirius, Spotify, the list goes on. Will they surpass digital downloads?

Compare these to the CDs we paid $15.99 to $19.99 and up more than 15 years ago and then compare that to music prices in today's dollars. Ouch. We were spending a lot of money back then.

But are we really paying less for our music with today's money? We think so, but personal computers and mobile devices certainly come at a price (as did turntables, CD players). Are musicians making more as a result? Unlikely.

For one, we're happy with this change. Less clutter, more music for less money, easier to organize, more accessible, on demand.

That's our opinion.

We're curious. What's yours?

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  1. gr_store_feet's Avatar
    I agree with most of that. Less storage and less monies to purchase are good things but I miss all the artwork and liner notes.
  2. John Flynn's Avatar
    It would not seem difficult to include the artwork and the liner notes as a viewable file along with the audio track files. I am not up on the latest and greatest, but I imagine someone's already trying/doing it.
  3. Fred Keller's Avatar
    I love the idea of music costing less and leaving less footprint on the planet. But the other side of the coin is that the artists appear to be making less. More research would be necessary to prove that to my satisfaction, but anecdotally (I have sold songs on digital media and have made tens of dollars all told) it bears out. I refer to this graphic:
  4. JEStanek's Avatar
    I'm of two minds in this and it affects how and when I spend my money on music. Digital downlaods are great and very convienient. The problem is no liner notes, which I usually only read 1 time but still they're cool. PDF should solve this and iTunes (and whatever other people use) ought to be able to organize and hold them for viewing on my PC (another soon to be dinosaur obscured by the Cloud).

    I buy physical CDs at house concerts and shows/festivals. I really wish there was a better way for this to be accomplished. Get the files on a flash drive from a lap top there.... No idea. It stinks that having plastic CDs is still a requirement for less known and touring artists to sell their music when people are the most jazzed to buy it.

    When I went to my iPod several years ago, I ripped all my CDs and filed them in a binder and trashed all the cases and most of the paper. I recovered a wall in my house that was previously filled with jewel cases. Yay. Now I have smaller sad stacks of CDs awaiting proper filing.

    It's mind boggling that a 80gig iPod holds a room ful of music ready for me at any time. I love that. I hope the artists continue to make decent money with their sales but there are lots of variables there to make a guess.
  5. coletrickle's Avatar
    I am conflicted by this. I love having liner notes and the CDs are part of my collection. I also like buying CDs direct so that the artist gets all of the money. I'm not sure how much a band makes from iTunes or Amazon, but I'm guessing it is a fraction of what they make direct. Of course I believe CD Baby and other outfits are a little be more profitable from a digital perspective. But, I'm not sure how it all works.

    At the same time, as a consumer, it is hard to spend $18 on a CD that doesn't have liner notes, and is packaged in cardboard flip top holder when I can download the tracks instantly for $9.99 or less. I know that bands are spending less and less on elaborate liner notes and jewel cases, and rightfully so, but when the package is little more than I would get with a download, it is hard for me to justify the extra money.

    I will still buy hard copy CDs, especially as part of my collection like RVG Blue Note jazz albums and Smithsonian albums, but for the first time I got more in iTunes gift cards than hard CDs at Christmas this year. And this was largely because I am running out of space for CDs in my office.
  6. Mike Black's Avatar
    I still like the whole music experience. I like liner notes and pictures while listening to an album. I'll sometimes buy the digital version, and if I like it, I'll by the real thing. So the digital version is something to listen to while I feel you experience it with the hard copy. I still prefer to buy my music on LP if at all possible. Which according to stats just released by Nielsen Soundscan, vinyl sales in the US topped 3.9 million in 2011, a 39.3 percent gain over 2010. THAT IS GREAT NEWS!!!!!
  7. swinginmandolins's Avatar
    I miss linear notes as well. I miss record stores as well. I enjoyed spending hours sifting through bins and finding interesting things. Getting an album in minutes from a download is great though. I just wish that browsing would be easier, but that applies to all online shopping.

    As far as costs and the division of profits don't know the split these days. I do know that in the 90's when I worked for Sony Disc Manufacturing that CDs cost $.20 to manufacture, all included. So not much production cost has been lost going digital.
    Another plus is the decrease in all the nasty chemicals and waste from the production of discs. The decrease started about 12 years ago when that plant, which was only about 7 years old closed down.
  8. Perry's Avatar
    I like holding something in my hand be it a book or a CD. I like how the physical CD
    "steers" me towards listening to the album as a whole or at least chunks of it. I hate how IPods or other devices in shuffle mode spit out the tunes in varying volumes due to differences in mastering. I like having a physical CD to sell at our shows. We've made several hundreds of dollars that way instead of one or two hundred dollars in digital sales. It's easier for the big cats to sell little cats need to hawk tangible product at shows.
  9. mandolino maximus's Avatar
    Something to be said for "tangibility," liner notes, and WAV formats. Concern about compensation to the artist seems valid too. Apple is now what the record label used to be only with a smaller cut to the artist. I believe smaller (non-Lady Gaga) artists are realizing they can't make much direct money at all off of electronic sales and tend to use them to generate awareness and concert revenue.

    Technology = ubiquity. Good for consumerism. I will be all but forced to buy an I-Pod type of device and a plug-in to my car sometime in the near future. I will find that convenient even if I get a little bit less from each electronic purchase. Given the ubiquity, I will also probably listen to each recording and each artist less. Eventually they'll charge more money for better electronic packages.
  10. bones12's Avatar
    I still like real hard copy CDs, often the labor of love on a small label with real tactile comfort; real books are in the same vein. I try to maximize the profits for artists, bands and local musicstores. Without them we will all the poorer. Doug in Vermont
  11. Matt DeBlass's Avatar
    The digital download thing is convenient, but it's harder to do at live shows. One guy I know gets around that by selling an access code and URL to his downloads attached on a little handmade keychain or pendant.
    It's also gotten cheaper to make your own CDs and sell them, I sell my older album with cheap packaging for $5 to a lot of people who admit right away they're just going to rip it to their computer and toss the physical CD on a shelf or in the closet and never touch it again.
  12. Chief's Avatar
    Don't have an Ipod, and don't really want one. I've also never downloaded anything. Call me old fashioned, a dinosaur, a luddite or anything else you like, but I prefer having a CD- or vinyl or tape( yep, still got plenty of both). I'm not convinced all technology is good. I'm even a late comer to this internet deal. Also, don't have a cell phone, or want one. In the words of Betty White, "It all seems like such a waste of time to me".
  13. Jai's Avatar
    I almost never buy digital downloads. I prefer to get CDs, but really, really prefer to buy vinyl records. For the simple reason that the sound quality is so much better - I have a very nice turntable, cd player, amp and speakers. My ipod sounds fine through it, but the CD player and turntable sound much better. And I love physical liner notes and I'm a tactile kind of person. However, I do see the environmental advantage of mp3s, but I do worry about artists earning a living and all this file sharing etc. must be cutting into their income. And in the case of the acoustic music we all love, these artists are generally not the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartneys of this world (in terms of earnings). The other thing is - re: cds or mp3s vs. vinyl, I know it's possible to play a vinyl record without electricity (think: wind-up gramophone) imagine what will happen if all goes to pot and we are unable to generate any more electricity... (though of course that's what we've got mandolins for).
  14. scapier's Avatar
    The downside is that fewer musicians can make a living playing and recording, and those of us who also record other musicians can't make ends meet on the new budgets musicians bring to us. I could make a living, almost, when folk album budgets were $15k or so. I sure can't when the budget is $3k.

  15. danielpatrick's Avatar
    Sadly, I've read two insider reports saying after this holiday season, the physical cd will stop production with most labels. Target and Walmart have both told the major labels that after the 2012 holiday season, they will be reducing their floor space by 90%. Bad news for cd fans..............
  16. mandorambler's Avatar
    It means, among the many other things listed above, that recorded music has become more disposable (and expendable?) than ever. Who is going to treasure going through his or her parents' music files? I guess the same folks who will enjoy sifting through the e-mails grandma and grandpa sent when they were courting.
    Funny that something can be so "green" and so disposable at the same time.

    Regarding the insider reports regarding the majors discontinuing putting music out on the CD format, here's another article:

    But, to refer back to the title of this op ed, it means that fewer people, including the artists, will be making money. Your favorite bluegrass, gypsy jazz, Brazilian, (insert preferred genres here) performers will be making even less money than they currently enjoy, and you can therefore expect fewer live performances and recordings from them. Many of the recordings you will get may well be of lower quality than what you are used to, because, at least in my meager recording experiences from 30+ years of playing music, a good studio with good microphones and equipment, a good engineer and a good producer make a big difference.
    You may choose to view the "triumph" of downloading as a poke at the music industry fatcats, which it most certainly has been, but it also hurts all the ordinary schmoes you know. One of my bands played a gig last year where, in front of a table full of our CDs (priced at $10/ea, way less than a dime per song), not even a teenager but a middle aged lady asked how she could "get" some of our music. We indicated the actual, reasonably priced CDs which were easily within her reach, but that was not what she meant. In spite of the easy download, involving only the transfer of a ten dollar bill and a movement of a compact disc from the table into her hands, no recorded music was transferred that night.
    Updated Jan-08-2012 at 5:21pm by mandorambler
  17. Jacob's Avatar
    It means that I can now afford to buy massive boxed CD sets such as the complete works of Bach and of Beethoven at an astoundingly low price.
    Updated Jan-09-2012 at 8:51am by Jacob
  18. John McGann's Avatar
    Gloria Estefan was a keynote speaker at a teacher's conference at Berklee yesterday. She has a lot of experience as a businesswoman in the music biz.

    Her latest hit song hit the Latin Billboard charts at #1, a first for a female artist. She mentioned that even 10 years ago, this would have yielded something around 4 million units total sales. Actual CD sale numbers? 20,000.

    Even for a mega-selling artist like her, financial times are ridiculously tough in the "record zone", and she emphasized a huge return to live music.

    I like that she also mentioned that record labels had no business charging upwards of $20 for a CD in the first place, and that some foresight in place of greed might have meant $8 new releases and an industry that wasn't brought to it's knees, where it is receiving a very slow, but sharp axe.
  19. Kyle Baker's Avatar
    I worry about how easy it could be to loose everything you've paid for if you only had it in digital format. This week was the first time i ever downloaded a album from iTunes. I feel the same about buying ebooks for my kobo reader.
    With a hard copy on CD, at least i know if something goes wrong with my computer, I'll always have it on disk. I guess I should suck it up and buy some extra hard drives strictly for backups.
  20. Geordie's Avatar
    So where's the "random factor" in downloadable music? I've discovered some of my favourite albums by flipping through used vinyl at second-hand stores and picking up whatever looked interesting. I don't like to think of how much great music I would have missed without the ability to check out a random box full of old LPs.
    But what do I know? I still think we should all go back to 78 rpm...