Feature // Stuck In The Past?
For the first time ever, ‘old’ music is selling more than ‘new’ music, according to recent articles in the music press. According to Nielsen SoundScan (the official method of tracking music sales in the US & Canada), the first six months of 2012 saw catalogue music (albums released more than eighteen months ago) outsell current and recent releases, by 76.6 million to 73.9 million. This statistic even counts Adele’s monstrously well-selling 21 as a recent release. So why could this be? And does it prove that the older cynics who say that their generation’s music was best are correct, that our generation is stuck in some creative malaise where it must plunder the past in order to be successful?
Of course not. There is a plethora of great music being made, even as you read this. But in our internet-dominated, kaleidoscopic music scene, with its genres, sub-genres and crossed-genres, perhaps it is harder to locate what you like to hear or to keep up with what’s happening. But as to the more interesting question of ‘why?’, there could be many explanations. Retailers, both physical and online, often make catalogue albums cheaper or put them on special offer (2 for £10, for instance), particularly to exploit increased demand in an artist if they have recently died (Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston most notably). In comparison, a typical new release may cost £8 to £10 on its own, and will usually stay that way for at least six months. Furthermore, bands that have split up have the big money temptation of a reformation tour, which is another opportunity for retailers to take advantage of renewed interest by dropping prices on their back catalogue. This trend has increased over the last decade and, with rare exceptions such as the Verve, artists that do so do not record any new material, preferring only to release another ‘Greatest Hits’ package. Therefore, it is only their catalogue music that sells.
As MP3 files become a more popular medium for playing and storing music, consumers may also be repurchasing their music collections in digital form. In turn, retailers are trying to turn younger fans onto the back catalogues of older artists. The Beatles’ entire back catalogue, for instance, was on offer as a single purchase for around £120 when their albums were re-issued in late 2009. The promise of owning the entire recording history of a band for one click of the mouse is a tempting, time- and cost-saving one. Another factor may be the promotional cycles which artists are often forced to endure at the behest of their record labels. Over the last twenty years, a band typically records and releases an album every 18-24 months, and touring in the interim. If the album is particularly successful, this cycle is often extended to three or even four years, as the record label seeks to maximise the interest. This means that artists sometimes cannot exploit their popularity by quickly following up a successful release with another, as used to be the case in the 1960s and 1970s. After two or three years, the general record buying public often forgets that artists and moves onto the next ‘thing’. This doesn’t itself explain why ‘new’ music has been selling less, but it shows that bands cannot expect the longevity of those older artists whose back catalogue sales have increased over recent years.
Words : Ed Biggs