Statistics are a heap of cold math with a story to tell, and the statistics that narrate the 2015 year in music tell a foreboding tale.
According to the 2015 Nielsen Music Report, consumption of overall music rose 15 percent last year. Total digital music consumption rose 26 percent.
That’s the good news.
But it’s not enough silver lining for a large cloud bearing too much apprehensive news, which, in a nutshell is: People in 2015 were less inclined to spend money on music, especially current music.
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And if people aren’t buying music, fewer musicians can afford to make music.
Streaming of songs and videos is becoming the favored way to listen to music. On-demand music streaming, which includes Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, YouTube/Vevo and Rdio, jumped nearly 93 percent in 2015, to more than 317 billion — yes, billion — streams.
But pretty much everything else dropped. Total album sales, which include CDs, vinyl, cassettes and digital albums, fell more than 6 percent, to 241 million units, following a 9 percent drop in 2014. Sales of CDs in 2015 fell almost 11 percent, to 126 million. The plunge continues.
The Adele factor
That sales decrease comes despite record-breaking numbers from Adele. Her “25” album, which was released in November and was not immediately available on streaming services, cracked the 5 million mark in CD sales and 2.3 million in digital sales.
Without Adele’s numbers in the mix, total album sales would have dropped another 2 percent, and CD sales would have fallen another 4 percent.
Even some of the good news bears some of the bad.
Sales of vinyl records rose significantly for the sixth straight year, up nearly 30 percent to 11.9 million albums. Since 2010, that figure has risen 325 percent. But there is evidence that the vinyl surge is starting to plateau. That 30 percent rise is a lower increase than the previous year’s, when sales of vinyl rose 50 percent, and from 2013, when sales rose more than 32 percent.
But most of the vinyl sales were for “catalog” music, or anything released more than 18 months ago, as opposed to current music. The top five best-selling vinyl albums of 2015 included Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” which finished third, fourth and fifth behind “25” and Taylor Swift’s “1989.”
In the music industry, 2015 will go down as the first year that sales of catalog music overtook current music. In the overall category (physical and digital), sales of current albums dropped more than 9 percent, to 119 million; catalog album sales dropped about 3 percent, to nearly 123 million.
Another reason to be alarmed: That 119 million in current album sales includes the 7.4 million copies of “25,” which accounts for more than 6 percent of the total. Throw in Swift’s numbers for “1989” (2 million), and the two 20-something artists accounted for about 8 percent of sales of current albums. That’s a lot of eggs in two baskets.
More conspicuous numbers: Of the two forms of on-demand music streams, video (YouTube, essentially) jumped the highest — almost 102 percent. Music streaming on subscription audio services such as Spotify also jumped, but not as high, 83 percent.
That difference is widening. In 2014, video streams exceeded audio streams by 6.3 billion. In 2015, that number more than quadrupled, to 27.5 billion.
Some quantitative perspective on the difference: The song most streamed via audio service was Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen”: 215 million streams. The video-streaming champ of 2015 was Silento’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)”: 487 million, more than double.
Why is that significant? Because YouTube is subscription-free — another way for consumers to get music without paying for it.
Compare those streaming numbers to sales of digital tracks (via iTunes and other online retail posts), which dropped more than 12 percent. The top digital-sales tracks were “Uptown Funk,” by Mark Ronson with Bruno Mars (5.5 million) and “Thinking Out Loud,” by Ed Sheeran (4 million), paltry numbers by comparison.
The Nielsen report also includes statistics culled from surveys of 500,000 music consumers. According to the survey, 75 percent of respondents listen to music online each week; 44 percent listen via a smartphone each week. And 51 percent spend money on concert tickets, a 7 percent jump from 2014.
But under the heading “Most important factors in choosing a streaming service,” the survey numbers are ominous.
The top reason for selecting a streaming service was cost. The top two reasons respondents were not likely to subscribe to a service: “They are too expensive” and “Music can be streamed for free.” And 78 percent of respondents said they were “somewhat to very unlikely” to pay for a streaming service in the next six months.
In other words, according to this survey, in the fastest-growing facet of the music distribution system, more than three-fourths of listeners don’t want to pay for their music. And that’s not good news for anyone.