CD Sales Decline - Is Quality a Factor?

By David B. Wilkerson,  - - posted Aug. 27, 2003
           Industry experts: Album quality may be one issue... At this stage in the digital music download revolution, it's clear that cost and convenience are critical factors when people opt to bypass a CD album purchase to download music.
           Some industry observers wonder, however, to what extent there has been a drop in the artistic quality of albums, and how much of a factor that has been in the digital era.
           In 2002, CD album sales fell 7.1 percent from the previous year, to 649.5 million, led by a 17.7 percent drop in R&B sales, a 15.2 percent dip in metal, a 6.4 percent slide in rap and a 4.4 percent decline in alternative.
           One thing that moves many people to seek digital downloads is that they only want two or three songs off a given CD, and are reluctant to pay $20 for several songs they won't listen to.
           Lee Abrams, chief programming officer at XM Satellite Radio (XMSR: news, chart, profile) and founder of the "Album-Oriented Rock" (AOR) format that helped legitimize FM radio in the early 1970s, says there are points in time when "there are periods of musical intensity, where there's great invention, fabulous music, and the emergence of a whole new generation of artists."
           This, says Abrams, is not one of those eras. "There are periods of lull, where really there's no major statements being made, music tends to become very corporate, very McDonald's rock, all the same, and right now we're in a period of musical lull," Abrams said. "And I mean, every indicator is there."
           To Abrams, the peak musical periods of the last half century were:
1955-57, when rock 'n' roll emerged as a major force, led by artists such as Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.
1964, when The Beatles made their first U.S. tour.
1967-1969, when guitarist Jimi Hendrix's explosive style began to galvanize a generation of musicians and fans.
1980-81, when punk rock and rap emerged.
           A "mini-peak" in 1990-91, when grunge came to the fore, and hip-hop had one of its better creative periods. In between, the lull periods have been marked by a distinct lack of imagination on the part of record companies, Abrams says.
           "Like, between Elvis and The Beatles, in 1960 ... the artists, like Bobby Vee and Bobby Vinton, Bobby Rydell - they never wrote any songs. They'd walk in the studio, they'd sing, and then they'd get kicked out, and the studio musicians, all hired guns, would come in," he said. "And same thing in the middle '60s, with bands like Paul Revere and the Raiders, who had these silly costumes, or The Monkees, they didn't play their instruments, it was all manufactured. And nowadays we're seeing that, where the labels are very much in control."
           "Manufactured" acts who have done well on the pop charts in the last 10 years or so include "American Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson, 98 Degrees, Christina Aguilera, Backstreet Boys, Mandy Moore, Aaron Carter and 'N Sync.
           But Alan Burns, a consultant to radio stations in the U.S. and Europe and founder of, says the issue is more subtle. "I think that to a limited degree, the number of "great" albums has declined over the years, largely because of economics," he said. "But there's another factor: the continuing fragmentation of music tastes and sources. There's less consensus about what's 'good' so there are fewer albums being widely proclaimed as 'great' CDs."
           In the 1970s, when LP sales overtook those of 45 rpm singles, part of the reason, says Burns, was that "it happened over a time period when there were huge artists whose fans wanted to hear everything they recorded, and those artists spent two years in the studio crafting their own unique sound."
           Abrams agrees. "Bands like Pink Floyd and The Police, on the first album, they were getting the hang of it," he said. "And usually if they had what we call 'It,' the magic that'll transcend, then in those cases, it's the third album where you really started hearing it. And so I think a lot of artists aren't given a chance [to record with the backing of a big studio]."
           Rising production costs are a factor, Abrams added. "Some bands spend so much money on their first record, and if it doesn't work, I don't know if I'd blame the companies for not wanting to do a second one."
           The ironic thing about the popularity albums once enjoyed over singles, Burns pointed out, was that on a per-song basis it was more cost effective to get perhaps 12 songs by a given artist for $7 or $8 than it was to purchase 12 45s for $1 a piece.
           Lucrative fan base ignored? Abrams says CDs aren't being marketed to their best target audience. "If you look at the latest statistics, the biggest record consumers are over 40," he said. "You can't find anybody other than the rare technophile over 30 who knows how to download to an MP3 player. There's just an absurd -- and this has always been going on in the record business - an infatuation with the youth audience, instead of looking at the big picture. Today, the 40-plus [consumers] are buying the records, and it's the 40-plus that will put on a CD and listen to it all the way through."
           Abrams says the baby boomer CD buyer is interested in "sophisticated, high-end" acts like jazz singers Diana Krall and Norah Jones, and want to replenish their libraries with old favorites from the '60s and '70s.
           "One of the big problems though - and I think XM is the answer, over time - is that a lot of the great artists from that era who can still do huge concert business get no exposure on the radio," Abrams went on. "Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, even [Bruce] Springsteen has trouble getting played - you hear one cut [from his most recent album]. But there are a lot of these artists, like Steely Dan, that are making great music, yet there's no way to reach them, traditionally, through radio."
           Radio's role
For all age groups, radio's role in CD sales shouldn't be underestimated. "Promoting albums is the record label's job, not the radio stations,'" said Burns. "But radio should be helping to 'build' artists by talking about artists, giving the audience a sense of who's making the music. ... Having listeners bond with more artists is good for the artist, the label, and for the radio format that features the artist."
           "I think the thing in traditional radio that is inhibiting its advancement is research," Abrams said. "I think research is fine, but the traditional radio research that 90 percent of radio stations are addicted to, is very anti-music. It really rewards super, super-familiarity, and status quo. Everything that's adventurous tends not to test well, and as a result, keeps radio stations very safe.
           "I believe that if there was radio research in 1964, The Beatles probably would not have tested well. And in 1969, Hendrix never would've gotten played. It would've been too weird." See related interview with Abrams on radio's research techniques from March 2002.
           Ultimately, the entire industry has to come together to make CDs a more viable option for music listeners. "The best way to generate sales of song collections by one artist - in other words, an album/CD, either online or on plastic -- is for the music industry and radio to ... develop and embrace great new artists and great new sounds, and to build awareness of those artists among consumers," said Burns.
           "But those artists and sounds don't roll off a conveyor belt on a convenient schedule ..."

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