IFPI and RIAA 2013 Music Sales Figures: First Take

The IFPI and RIAA today released their annual music sales numbers.  Though there are positive signs, overall they make for troubling reading 

  • Total sales were down 3.9%.  Based on 2012 numbers the trend suggested that 2013 revenues should have registered a 2% growth, so that is a -6% swing in momentum.
  • Digital grew by 4.3% which was not enough to offset the impact of declining CD sales, which has been the story every year since 2000 except last.
  • Download sales declined by 1%. Continued competition from apps and other entertainment, coupled with subscriptions poaching the most valuable download buyers is finally taking its toll.
  • Subscriptions up by 51%: An impressively strong year for subscriptions but not enough to make the digital increase bigger than the physical decline on a global basis nor in key markets, including the US.

Global numbers of course can be misleading and there is a richly diverse mix of country level stories underneath them, ranging from streaming driven prosperity in the Nordics, through market stagnation in the US to crisis in Japan – where revenues collapsed by 16.8%.  The Nordic renaissance helped push Europe into growth but data from the RIAA, show that total US music revenues were down a fraction – 0.3%.  US download sales were down by 0.9% while subscriptions were up an impressive 57% to $628 million.

On the one hand this shows that Spotify has managed to kick the US subscription market into gear following half a decade or so of stagnation.  But on the other it shows that subscriptions take revenue from the most valuable download buyers.  This backs up the trend I previously noted, that streaming takes hold best in markets where downloads never really got started.  Thus markets like the US with robust download sectors will feel growth slowdown as high spending downloaders transition to streaming, while in markets like Sweden where there was no meaningful download sector to speak of, subscriptions can drive green field digital revenue growth.

The Download Is Not Dead Yet

Though subscriptions now account for 27% of digital revenue, the value trend obscures the consumer behavior trend.  For Spotify’s c.9.5 million paying subscribers (or 6 million last officially reported) Apple’s installed base of iTunes music buyers stands at c.200 million (see figure).  The IFPI report that there are now 28 million subscription customers globally.  In the US and UK this translates into 4 or 5% of consumers. Subscriptions do a fantastic job of monetizing the uber fans, just like deluxe vinyl boxsets and fan funding sites like Pledge do so also.  But they are inherently niche in reach.  This is why downloads remain the music industry’s most important digital tool.  Downloads are the most natural consumer entry point into digital music, and if anyone else had been able to come close to matching Apple’s peerless ability to seamlessly integrate downloads into the device experience, then the sector would be much bigger than it is now.

service bubbles

Do not confuse this with being a luddite view that streaming and subscriptions are not the future, they are, but there is a long, long journey to that destination that we are only just starting upon for most consumers.   And before that there is a far more important issue, namely how to get the remaining CD buyers to go digital.

Sleepwalking Into a Post-CD Collapse

Last year the IFPI numbers showed a modest globally recovery but despite the widespread optimism that surrounded those numbers I remained cautious and wrote that it was “a long way from mission accomplished.”  My overriding concern then was the same as it is now, namely that the music industry does not have a CD buyer migration strategy and it desperately needs one.  So much so that unless it develops one it will end up sleepwalking into a CD collapse.   In fact I predicted exactly what has happened:

“CD sales decline will likely accelerate.  Among the top 10 largest music markets in the world CD revenue decline will likely accelerate markedly in the next few years.  In France and the UK leading high street retailers are on their last legs while in Germany and Japan the vast majority (more than 70%) of sales are still physical.  So the challenge for digital is can it grow as quickly as the CD in those markets will decline?

The IFPI have stressed the fact that Japan’s dramatic 15% decline was the root cause of the global downturn.  While this is largely true – without Japan included global revenues still declined 0.1% – Japan’s problems are simply the global industry’s problems squared.  In 2012 a staggering 80% of Japanese music sales were physical but despite the digital market actually declining 4 successive years total revenues increased 4%.  As the world’s second biggest market, when Japan sneezes the global industry catches a cold.   But expect Japan to continue to drag down global revenues and also keep an eye on Germany.  Germany saw a modest 1.2% increase in revenues in 2013 but only 22.6% of sales were digital.  The most likely scenario is that Germany will follow the Japanese trend and go into a CD-driven dive in 2014 and / or 2015.

In conclusion, there is still cause for optimism from these numbers.  Subscriptions are going from strength to strength, at least in revenue terms, and the download sector remains robust in buyer number terms.  But unless the CD problem is fixed, the best both those digital revenue streams can hope to do is consolidate the market around a small rump of digital buyers.

Putting 2012 Digital Revenues Into Perspective

Note: this post has been updated to reflect some clarifications provided by IFPI.  Thank you to Gabi Lopes IFPI for the guidance.  Changes are noted below.

The IFPI today announced that for the first time ever growth in digital trade music revenues outpaced the decline in physical trade revenue.  (The emphasis on ‘trade’ is important as we’re talking about revenue to the industry rather than consumer spending and so can include income such as advances paid by services in anticipation of sales.)  That caveat aside, this is clearly a key industry milestone that has been a long time coming and is a sign of a digital market that is beginning to reach some degree of maturity. However this is a long way from mission accomplished, here’s why:

  • 57% of music revenues still come from physical (see figure). With the exception of the US the few other markets that have surpassed the 50% digital mark (e.g. Sweden, India) are minor music markets in revenue terms.  The simple fact is that the majority of music buyers still buy CDs. And to be clear, I said the majority of ‘music buyers’ still buy CDs, not the majority of ‘people’. So even forgetting for a moment the consumers lost to the music industry through piracy and other means, the majority of its core customers have still not seen reason enough to go 100% digital.  And the interesting additional factor here is that the vast majority of people who are buying digital still buy some music on CD. So even among the vanguard of digital customers, the CD’s embrace is a lingering one.
  • CD sales decline will likely accelerate.  Among the top 10 largest music markets in the world CD revenue decline will likely accelerate markedly in the next few years.  In France and the UK leading high street retailers are on their last legs while in Germany and Japan the vast majority (more than 70%) of sales are still physical.  So the challenge for digital is can it grow as quickly as the CD in those markets will decline?

music industry revenues 2012

But there is hope.  Streaming services present meaningful opportunity and despite the fact 9.99 is far from a mainstream price point (it is in the entire monthly spend of the top 10% of music buyers) it is a great way to deliver disproportionately high revenue from a small base of consumers.   If that model can be effectively transitioned to the mass market via more telco partnerships like Telia Sonera and Cricket then we may just have a mass-market digital music proposition on our hands.

The Continued Dominance of Apple

But while premium streaming offers future potential, it is expected to total no more than 10% of 2012 digital revenues.   By contrast, Apple is the here and now.

Downloads meanwhile are close to half of all digital revenues with about $3 billion.  (The remaining 40% of digital revenue is a mixed bag, including ring tones, advertising and probably advances.) So with downloads by far the largest single digital revenue source Apple is the here and now – though we have to do some forensic work to find out just how big a role it plays…

The IFPI reports that the total number of paid downloads for 2012 was 4.3 billion units.  (The IFPI have clarified that albums are counted as single units are not counted as total number of tracks). Earlier this month Apple reported reaching the milestone of 25 billion songs sold, with the previous reported number being 16 billion in November 2011. Allowing for January 2013 being a particularly strong month (following all those Christmas iPad and iPhone sales) that gives an annual sales number of about 6.6 billion.  This translates translates to $3.9 billion which is about 70% of all digital revenues.

Which is still 2.3 billion more than the global total reported by the IFPI.   The most likely explanation is that Apple’s February press release headline “iTunes Store Sets New Record with 25 Billion Songs Sold” was misleadingly incorrect – just as I suggested in fact at the end of this blog post – and that the actual numbers instead actually refer to ‘purchased and downloaded’ (i.e. a mix of the two).

Apple remains the biggest and most important game in town.  And even without Apple getting into the streaming game this is still good new for the music industry.   As I posted a few weeks ago, Apple’s growth in iPad and iPhone sales has driven an upsurge in iTunes downloads, which coupled with iTunes’ expansion into multiple new emerging markets will bring even further digital growth.

Finally, for some additional perspective, if you add Apple’s $2.6 billion to the $10.9 billion in CD sales, Apple and the CD combined accounted for 90% of music industry revenue in 2012. So for all the talk of streaming and new service innovation, in 2012 the CD and Apple remained the bedrock of music sales.