The price is right

iTunes figures show it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that cheap swing


Fifty per cent of headlines this week maintained iTunes is responsible for saving the music world. The other 50 per cent made iTunes responsible for destroying the music world.

It’s a bit of a musical Mobius Strip all right. Yes, music sales globally have plummeted since the introduction of iTunes 10 years ago this week. But since the advent of iTunes, we are now buying more music than ever. What gives?

The answer: we’re buying way more individual tracks and way fewer full albums. We’ve come full circle – the popular music industry as we know it today was brought into being by sales of the 45rpm. It wasn’t until the long-haired, concept-album types emerged in the late 1960s/early 1970s that the single began to viewed as something casual for the teenybopper to spend their pocket money, on as opposed to the “serious” fan committing to a full album.

There was little money to be made from singles. Some were even loss-leaders for the accompanying album, but there was a very healthy profit in album sales. When the “serious” acts arrived in the mid-1960s, many of them wouldn’t lower themselves to release something as culturally vulgar as a single.
The single wasn’t killed off during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s for artistic reasons; it just didn’t make any financial sense. Rumours, The Dark Side of the Moon, Hotel California, Tubular Bells and Thriller signify the album’s high-
tide mark, and they made revenues the likes of which the industry will never see again. The arrival of the shiny new CD format copperfastened the album’s supremacy.

In the 1990s we were paying – as unbelievable as it sounds – roughly the equivalent of €30 for an album. If Napster/iTunes hadn’t happened, how much would we be paying now? It was this very greed that did for the music industry. While the labels were flogging old catalogues at ridiculous prices on the new CD format (and everyone felt they had to replace their old record collection), they were warned by computer experts that by digitising music they were vulnerable to file-sharing if the personal computer ever caught on. Home taping didn’t kill music (it didn’t even bloody its nose), but the simple dissemination of digital musical files for free on the net almost has.

Fans flocked to Napster in 1999 because they didn’t want to pay more than €30 to hear an album that only had two or three good tracks on it. iTunes legally formalised affairs by “unlocking” the album. Once the consumer was given the choice, they chose to buy just the one or two good tracks and skip the “filler”. Deprived of the huge profit margin from album sales, revenues dipped.

The old Stiff Records T-shirt that proclaimed “Money Talks, People Mumble” is pertinent this week. The mumbling about iTunes saving/ destroying music is meaningless. Give us good, cheap music and we’ll happily buy it. iTunes – more than 25 billion downloads served.

Item: This week, Frank Turner (a neo-folk artist, m’lud) cut the price of his new album, Tape Deck Heart , from £7.99 to £4.99 on the Amazon site. It wasn’t racing up the charts at £7.99, but it is at £4.99.

You can throw all the “industry analysis” at iTunes and its past, present and future. These days, though, more than ever, it don’t mean a thing unless it’s got that cheap financial swing.

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