Wednesday, June 22, 2011

An Average Album

In the post The Façade we looked at how in order to compete with major and indie labels and their artists, I set out to make my, artist owned, label look as professional as possible. This had some unintended consequences. People really thought that my label was a big deal and, along with that, I must be super rich.

The idea that musicians are all rich and famous has been around for decades. It’s part of the dream that the music industry pushes every year in their giant commercial, The Grammys.

Each spring the music industry puts on a star-studded spectacular award show featuring that year's most popular artists. The top acts in the world of Pop, Rock, R&B and County perform their hits and take home their awards, all in an effort to generate more interest and sales in their albums and songs. The Grammys want you to live vicariously through the lives of these stars, and give the impression that everything about music is glamorous, exciting and super-rich. (We also see this slight-of-hand at the Oscars. Glitz, glamor, fame and money.) They are selling the dream.

What you don’t see are performances by artists in the smaller genres and, in fact, several categories were cut from the Grammys all together this year. As for an Indie artist, the truth of the matter is that they will never attain the kind of success that is needed to perform at the Grammys without a (major) label backing them, and even then it’s a long shot. Given how many albums come out each year only a few can make the top of the charts.

Obviously the vast majority of musicians will never reach the level of rock-star, so what does it really mean for a musician to be a success? The answer for a musician will vary depending upon where we are in relationship to other musicians and whether or not we can pay our bills making music. But aside from that we can at least find the lowest common denominator by knowing how many copies the average album sells per year. Given that the music industry loves to tout how many millions of copies the best-selling albums have sold, you’d think it would be easy to find out what the average number of album sales per year is. That information, unlike the success stories, is not readily available however.

After multiple Google searches the only hard numbers I could dig up date back to 2002. At that time Billboard magazine estimated that in 2002 the average number of copies sold of an album released by a major label was 11,253, while Nielsen SoundScan tallied an average of only 6,216 units sold per album. SoundScan theoretically counts only those albums that have really sold.

For independent labels Billboard’s number dropped to 1,712, while SoundScan counted only 500 copies sold per album! For an Indie artist, without the backing of even a small label, the average number that year must have been below 500, although admittedly this is just a guess on my part.1

In the post Let's Get Physical: The Real Price of CDs we discovered that in order to make the monthly U.S. Minimum wage of $1,160 an Indie artist would have to sell 85 CDs each month priced at $15 each.* To reach SoundScan’s 2002 average of 500 CDs sold per album, an Indie artist would have to sell 42 CDs each month. That’s only $561.12 in sales per month. Well below the U.S. Minimum wage. Just to sell the average number of albums each year.

It stands to reason that in order to be a working musician your sales would have to be well above average, otherwise your income would be far below the poverty line. If an artist only sold (at $15) the average number of albums by 2002 figures their yearly gross income would only be $6,733.44!

Keep in mind that, according to the music industry, sales of CDs have been falling about 20% per year since 2002. In fact the music business is now worth half of what it was in 1999, down from $14.6 billion to 6.3 billion.2 And so far purchased downloads have only made up a small portion of lost CD sales. According to BigChampagne Media Measurement, an online tracking company, the amount of illegal, unauthorized downloads continues to represent about 90% of the download market.2

This brings into sharp focus the problem of illegal copies and Indie recording artists trying to make a living. For those of us that have been fortunate to be able sell more than the average amount of albums per year, making just enough to pay our bills, that luck and hard work are being eroded by unauthorized downloads and illegal copies of CDs. Yes, everyone blames someone else for the problem of pirated music, (usually the major labels) but in the end we all get to chose to either support the artists whose work we enjoy, or take money out of their pockets.

* These numbers are calculated by first removing the cost of manufacturing the disc.



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