The music business has long been the test case for digital disruption of traditional media. After all, “napsterize” became a verb off the back of the impact of MP3s on album and single sales, for an industry that had just about managed to handle the transition to CDs. Now the latest music sales figures for 2013 might give a crumb of comfort to a traditional publishing industry eager for reassurance. For, according to the full-year music sales data recorded by Nielsen SoundScan and reported by Billboard, “for the first time since the iTunes store opened its doors, the U.S. music industry finished the year with a decrease in digital music sales.”
The Nielsen figures showed a 5.7 percent drop in sales of individual digital tracks, and a 0.1 percent drop in the sales of digital albums over 2013. The other highly interesting item is that “vinyl continued its ascension rising to 6 million units from the 4.55 million the format tallied in 2012. That means vinyl is now 2% of album sales in the U.S.”
The flying fingers of spinning DJs across the U.S. will no doubt account for some of that resurgent appetite for vinyl. But publishers looking for more proof that the supposed tailoff in ebook sales means a long future ahead still for traditional print had perhaps better think again. Because Billboard concluded that the decline in digital music sales was not down to a return to more traditional forms, but to cannibalization by even more modern platforms. “Ad-supported and paid subscription services were indeed cannibalizing digital sales,” apparently.
I still suspect, though, that publishing industry executives who are looking at the format wars for answers to their current problems are looking in the wrong place. Their problem was and is not distribution, but talent spotting and tracking demand. Amazon’s more efficient real-time product comparison and recommendation engines have simply driven home how bad traditional publishers were at simply spotting good books. And that’s a real problem when those players are forced to fall back on precisely that kind of soft skills to justify their business existence.