The week the music died?
01 November 2009
When music industry chiefs picked up their most recent sales reports two weeks ago, they were in for a nasty shock. The figures revealed that the Irish music industry - already hugely depressed as a result of illegal downloading - had hit a new low.
According to Chart-Track, which compiles the official Irish music chart for the Irish Recorded Music Association, the new album from Colombian singer Shakira, She Wolf, had managed to reach the number one spot in Ireland despite selling just 1,101 copies.
Another new release, from the Dublin band Delorentos, sold just 842 copies to make it to number two. The new album from one-time Electric Picnic headliners the Flaming Lips, meanwhile, came in at number 47, selling a paltry 221 units.
Overall, album sales up to and including the week ending October 15 were down by 23.6 per cent, year on year.
‘‘The Shakira week frightened the life out of every single person who works in the record business," said Willie Kavanagh, managing director of EMI Records Ireland. ‘‘It was the lowest point in sales that we’ve seen."
As the popularity of illegal downloading continues to soar, the music industry is in crisis management mode.
Bands have been dropped from rosters, distributors and shops have shut their doors, record company staff are being laid off, and even world-famous artists are struggling to hold onto any semblance of their previous sales status - U2 have sold just one million copies worldwide of their most recent album, No Line On The Horizon, making it their lowest selling album in more than a decade.
Mixed reviews of the album doubtless didn’t help but, in an industry lurching from calamity to calamity, Kavanagh estimates that most artists can expect to shift roughly one-third of the albums they once would have.
‘‘We released an Aslan platinum collection about five years ago. Back then, you could put your hand on your heart and say that, with any Aslan release, you will sell possibly 50,000 copies," he said. ‘‘We released an Aslan record this year, and it sold about 13,000 copies. The likelihood is that copies were downloaded from the internet for free."
Although legal download sales have increased, the majority are for singles, rather than albums - sales mainly generated by teens. People are listening to more albums than ever (listenership to recorded music has increased since 2002, ac cording to NPD Group) but many, if not most, aren’t paying to do so. The largest demographic that buys CDs is that of fans aged 50 and over.
As a result, emerging Irish artists, who are more likely to have a young fanbase, are finding it more difficult to break through. ‘‘The new album by The Swell Season only went in at number 18 this week," said one industry observer. ‘‘Look at Irish bands like Codes or Delorentos - they go into the charts and then disappear."
‘‘We’re on the crest of one of those waves, where the labels themselves don’t really know what to do," said Daragh Anderson of Codes, who are signed to EMI. ‘‘They want to pretend they understand the internet marketing side of things, but they’re in a [bad] position because they’re not making money off physical products like they used to."
In a note in its most recent accounts, EMI Group Ireland warned of ‘‘declining recorded music sales: economic recession, physical piracy, illegal downloading and growing competition for discretionary spending’’. It also hit out at ‘‘organised commercial physical piracy, the existence of illegal internet file-sharing networks and the ubiquity of technological devices which enable unauthorised consumer copying of music content’’.
The hope in recent years has been that artists would find financial sustenance via the increased demand for live performances. From 2000 to 2007, concert revenues in the US soared from $1.7 billion to $3.9 billion, with the result that top-touring acts such as Madonna, Jay-Z and Nickelback ditched their increasingly antiquated looking label contracts in favour of multimillion-dollar deals with events firm Live Nation for touring, albums and merchandise.
But, against the backdrop of a glob al downturn, punters have become markedly less willing to part with exorbitant sums to see big acts perform.
Ticket touts desperately trying to flog bundles of extra tickets have become a common sight at big gigs in Ireland, and artists like the Eagles, Britney Spears and U2 have been forced either to cut prices or cancel shows altogether.
The Eagles concert planned for June 28 in Galway was cancelled after poor ticket sales - tickets had been on sale for €86.25 for standing and €131.25 for seated areas.
Some festivals, like the Analog music festival, have not returned this year. Other live venues, such as the Ambassador in Dublin, have been made over as venues to house long running, profit-oriented exhibitions like CSI: The Experience and Bodies.
‘‘The amount of gigs is being scaled back," said independent music publicist Michael McDermott. ‘‘You’re seeing fewer emerging bands coming over here. People are more cautious. Before, it was an agent’s game, where people were outbidding each other to try to get a slice of the market here."
Record shops, meanwhile, are either diversifying to save themselves, or shutting down altogether. ‘‘In the last year, we’ve lost all 14 Zavvi stores," said one observer. ‘‘Galway has literally nothing left; it lost Redlight Records and Mulligan Records. Road Records in Dublin was saved, but places like Abbey Discs are gone."
Some music distributors have also been unable to save themselves. Big European distributors such as Pinnacle in Britain and Neuton in Germany have folded, while the respected Chicago indie label Touch And Go, which signed critical-favourite acts like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV On The Radio, has also been forced to shut down.
Big record labels, meanwhile, have been forced to take unusual steps in order to generate profit. Universal Music Ireland - the company behind U2, Lady GaGa and Imelda May - targets deals with artists who have an older fanbase, simply because this is the demographic which still buys albums.
‘‘It’s definitely a factor," said Mark Crossingham, managing director of Universal Music Ireland. ‘‘This year, we have the new David Gray album and The Sawdoctors. We did a Tommy Fleming ‘best of’ earlier in the year. We’re also doing a posthumous Christy Hennessy album, basically finishing of f an album that he started before he died."
The effect that all this has had on the morale of younger bands is difficult to calculate. Isolated and often broke, Irish bands are in a difficult position, with even household names forced to re-evaluate how they operate.
‘‘The loss of sales is something that musicians have had to come to terms with," said Paul Noonan, lead singer of Bell X1. ‘‘If you were to take it to the extreme - that music would be free - that would be a difficult pill to swallow.
‘‘As a music lover myself, I remember waiting in line in the shop as a teenager when the new REM record came out. That was definitely part of the excitement of music. It was a thing of value. And for that to suddenly have no value, it would definitely not sit comfortably with me."
But Noonan, in common with some fellow musicians, retains a sense of optimism. New technology has reduced recording costs significantly, and bands with a profile can find a way to make the new environment work for them.
For their most recent album, Bell X1 ditched their label and brought the record out under their own steam. ‘‘We have found owning our music and finding partners all over the world to put our music out really empowering," Noonan said.
‘‘We’re a bit of an anomaly, in that we were with a major label for three records and the only one we’ve ever seen any money from is this one, on our own label. With the boutique arrangement, we’ve handpicked smaller labels worldwide, and we feel more in control. It’s a brave new world."