For more than a decade the music industry has claimed that digital piracy is the main cause for the gradual decline in revenues. However, looking at the sales data of the music industry itself shows that the disappointing income might be better explained by a third factor that is systematically ignored.
After music cassettes were introduced in the mid-70s the number of sales saw a gradual increase, until the late 80s when the CD took over in popularity. Cassettes were eventually phased out as CD sales continued to skyrocket. In music industry vocabulary one could argue that CDs killed cassettes.
Interestingly enough, this format shift was nothing new for the music industry. Now, three decades after cassettes started to dominate the music business, the CD is losing ground.
This time around there is a new enemy in town, digital piracy. For nearly a decade the U.S. music industry has seen a decline in sales of physical CDs and all this time it has put the blame on digital piracy. By doing so, the labels conveniently ignore the most drastic format shift music has ever seen the digital revolution.
With the growing popularity of the Internet, computers and most importantly MP3-players, music fans have started to trade in their CDs for MP3s and other digital files. Initially, the public had to convert CDs themselves, but in 2003 the iTunes store opened, selling over a million tracks in the first week.
With this shift from physical to digital, another important change hit the industry, one that may in part explain why the labels' revenues in the U.S. continued to decline. With the introduction of paid downloads, consumers no longer had to buy a full album if they were only interested in two or three songs. This new freedom for consumers has dramatically changed the music sales landscape.
According to statistics taken from the RIAA shipment database, between 2004 and 2008 the number of single tracks sold in the U.S. increased by 669 percent while the number of album sales dropped 42 percent. Consequently, the income of the big labels suffered since single track sales are less profitable than full albums. As can be seen in the chart here, the number of music "units" sold continues to grow rapidly nonetheless. So where does piracy fit into this picture?
The format shift from physical to digital music, and the change in buying habits that came along with it, may explain the decline in revenue more than piracy can.
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