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July 8, 2014

There's less good music now — here's why

Taylor Swift, the seven-time Grammy winner, is known for her articulate lyrics, so there was nothing surprising about her writing a long column for The Wall Street Journal about the future of the music industry. Yet there's reason to doubt the optimism of what she had to say.

"This moment in music is so exciting because the creative avenues an artist can explore are limitless," Swift wrote. "In this moment in music, stepping out of your comfort zone is rewarded, and sonic evolution is not only accepted…it is celebrated. The only real risk is being too afraid to take a risk at all."

That's hard to reconcile with Nielsen's mid-year U.S. music report, which showed a 15 percent yеar-on-year drop in album sales and a 13 percent decline in digital track sales. This could be the 2013 story all over again, in which streaming services cannibalize their growth from digital downloads, whose numbers dropped for the first time ever last year, except that even including streams, album sales are down 3.3 percent so far in 2014. Streaming has grown even more than it did last year, 42 percent compared to 32 percent, but has failed to make up for a general loss of interest in music.

Consider this: in 2014 to date, Americans purchased 593.6 million digital tracks and heard 70.3 million video and audio streams for a sum total of 663.9 million. In the comparable period of 2013, the total came to 731.7 million.

Swift, one of the few artists able to pull off stadium tours, believes it's all about quality. "People are still buying albums, but now they're buying just a few of them," she wrote. "They are buying only the ones that hit them like an arrow through the heart."

In 2000, album sales peaked at 785 million. Last year, they were down to 415.3 million. Swift is right, but for many of the artists whose albums pierce hearts like arrows, it's too late. Sales of vinyl albums have increased 40.4 percent so far this year, according to Nielsen, and the top-selling one was guitar hero Jack White's Lazaretto. The top 10 also includes records by the aging or dead, such as the Beatles and Bob Marley & the Wailers. More modern entries are not exactly teen sensations, either: the Black Keys, Beck and the Arctic Monkeys. None of these artists is present on the digital sales charts, including or excluding streams. The top-selling album so far this year, by a huge margin, is the saccharine soundtrack to the Disney animated hit, Frozen.

When, like me, you're over 40 and you believe the music industry has been in decline since in 1993 (the year Nirvana released In Utero), it's easy to criticize the music taste of "the kids these days," a term even the 23-year old Swift uses. My fellow dinosaurs will understand if they compare 1993's top albums to Nielsen's 2014 list. But these kids don't just like to listen to different music than we do, they no longer find much worth hearing.

The way the music industry works now may have something to do with that. In the old days, musicians showed their work to industry executives, the way most book authors still do to publishers (although that tradition, too, is eroding). The executives made mistakes and were credited with brilliant finds. Sometimes they followed the public taste, and sometimes they strove to shape it, taking big financial and career risks in the process. These days, according to Swift, it's all about the social networks. "A friend of mine, who is an actress, told me that when the casting for her recent movie came down to two actresses, the casting director chose the actress with more Twitter followers," Swift wrote. "In the future, artists will get record deals because they have fans — not the other way around."

The social networks are fickle and self-consciously sarcastic (see the recent potato salad phenomenon). They are not about arrow-through-the-heart sincerity. That's why YouTube made Psy a star, but it couldn't have been the medium for Beatlemania. Justin Timberlake has 32.9 million Twitter followers, but he's no Jack White.

In the music industry's heyday, it produced a lot of schlock. But it got great music out to the masses, too. These days, it expects artists to do their own promotion and for those who less good at that than at making music, it may mean not getting heard. For fans it means less good music to stream and download. Well, there's always the warm and fuzzy world of vinyl nostalgia, I guess.

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