The Decline and Fall of the Top 10

The impact of technology on the music business is well understood, but it is also having a dramatic impact on the music buying population, which in turn is changing the face of mainstream music.  Digital music has so far been a journey for the more engaged, technology savvy music fan.  Some of these have discovered free music, others a la carte, others streaming.  All of these behaviours have eaten away at sales of the music industry’s core product: the album.   Yet the CD album remains the music industry’s number 1 global music product and in key markets like Japan and Germany it accounts for approximately three quarters of sales. The problem of course is that CD buyers are steadily falling out of the market (10.5 million people have stopped buying music entirely in the UK and US since 2008).  Though re-releases and discounted catalogue sales have helped bump up volumes in some markets, the net result is that new release album sales are dwindling.  Even more interestingly though, the abandonment of the album by engaged music fans is changing the face of the top 10 (see figure).

top 10 album sales us

Looking at how the US top 10 albums chart has evolved since 2000 reveals a few key trends:

  • Sales have tumbled sharply: the top 10 albums accounted for 56.4 million unit sales in 2000, by 2012 this had dropped by 38.7 million to 17.7 million (a 69% drop). 
  • Some genres have fared better than others: the average number of sales per top 10 album for Rock, Pop, and Urban all fell by 75% between 2000 and 2012.  Country only fell by 66% and Adult by just 30%.  Adult, with artists like Michael Bublé, Adele, Susan Boyle and Josh Groban represent the new ‘safe’ market for album sales. These artists appeal to older music buyers who still predominately buy CDs and often rely upon mainstream outlets like Walmart. 
  • Genres have fluctuated: although Pop is more pervasive than ever and now represents 41% of top 10 album sales, the sales for today’s Pop artists pale in comparison with those of the 2000 peak.  One Direction’s 1.6 million and 1.3 million sales and Justin Bieber 1.3 million in 2012 compare miserably with ‘N Sync’s 9.9 million, Britney Spears’ 7.9 million and the Backstreet Boys’ 4.3 million in 2000.   Urban has also steadily declined over the period, from a high of 50% of top 10 sales in 2005 to zero in 2012, while Country has steadily grown its share from zero in 2000 and 2001 to 19% in 2012. Rock, following a few strong years from 2006 to 2008 has been relegated to a niche of no more than 8% every year since, disappearing entirely in 2010.

Of course the top 10 album sales are not the whole music market, but that is sort of the point: the top 10 is becoming ever less of a measure of broader music buyer tastes and even further from the tastes of more engaged music fans.  Streaming and a la carte are empowering the music aficionados to deep dive, if not into the long tail, then certainly into the full torso of music, bypassing the short head of the top 10.  Leaving the top 10 as the pulse of the dwindling mainstream.

17 thoughts on “The Decline and Fall of the Top 10

  1. but decline in top 10 albums sales cannot be analyzed as isolated especially since album sales as a whole have declined… so key number to look at would be decline in top ten album sales vs. total album sales over past decade. Aggregate number isn’t good indicator of how well top ten albums are doing.

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  4. The message is don’t just judge a success or failure of a project on album sales alone. There are plenty of successful front line release projects where single track downloads out-perform album bundles and CD sales, factor in growing streaming activity too and you have a completely different picture. Chart positions are becoming increasingly meaningless but as an industry we still seem to be wedded to them.

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  6. The CD album will not disappear for two good reasons. 1. Human anthropology drives people who live in a stable residence to collect stuff they like; be it books, paintings, or music. 2. The absolute best way to listen to any music is on a high quality home stereo system that plays CDs. The best way to store the massive amounts of data needed to reproduce superior quality sounding music recordings is on a CD. Transient and otherwise unsettled people will use inferior MP3s. People who are economicly stable enough to pay for long term rent or to buy a house will be more inclined to invest in a high quality sound system and a library of CDs. There is your stable market.

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  8. Stop the pirates, I personally do not want to listen to the second rate junk by musos in their bedrooms, there is a good reason why artists are signed to major labels, they are the best. The major labels have done a good job. Now they are the enemy for some obscure reason.
    They have brought us some of the biggest names in the industry and we still go to there concerts, when they are dead we will have no real stars and no memorable concerts.

    Have we all gone mad.

    I am a member of music xray, I recently went through a huge number of members listening to their music, I did not find one single band or artist that was a standout, this is what is coming folks, second rate music. I think the word is crap.

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  10. This past summer I bought Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange album. Previous to that I had not bought an album in about ten years. I am personally more likely to buy a few songs a la carte than buy an entire album. I foresee a time where the Top 10 albums get replaced by Top Songs or Singles to represent what the popular music is amongst the technology savvy generation. The Top 10 albums will represent the artists who have high fan loyalty or artists whose fans have not transitioned into the digital era.

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  13. Get rid of these pigs and never pay any of them. Get them out of our country and out of our world. They are all pigs.

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