Ask anyone under the age of 50 about the last CD they purchased, and they’re likely to require a few moments to think about their last experience with physical media. Over the past decade, the iPod and the iTunes music store have shifted buying patterns in a major way, with the majority of music purchases now taking place through digital stores rather than bricks-and-mortar music stores that sell compact discs and other popular media.
While the effects of digital distribution have been known for some time, their impact is still quite stark by the numbers. The major labels saw a 44 percent decline in CD purchases year over year in 2012 alone. That compounds losses over each of the past eight years, as iTunes has become the single largest music store in the United States and in many locations around the world. Digital downloads of music, however, are up as much as 15.4 percent. In many cases, the drop in CD sales has been compensated for by a significant increase, year over year, in the purchase of digital albums.
Classical Music a Bit Less Influenced than Pop Labels
Even amid a climate that is distinctly moving toward digital music downloads, classical music albums remain relatively popular in compact disc form. Sales are down, to be sure, but major classical music labels report nowhere near the 44 percent decline faced by the major labels that distribute pop music and other major formats. Their declines are in the upper teens to low twenties, with solid rises in online downloads making up for the lack of interest in physical media.
Overall, that actually means good news for the smaller labels that regularly issue classical music albums. Compact discs represent a significant expense and a pretty large gable. Music labels must buy a massive quantity of CDs upfront, and then make back their money by selling those albums to buyers. With more digital downloads, they can spend less money upfront while enjoy more profit at the time of sale.
And, with sales that are declining much slower than at major pop music labels, the classical music industry gets to enjoy a much more gradual and managed transition away from physical media formats and toward digital alternatives. That allows the industry to better prepare itself for things like per-song fees, digital rights management technologies, and a wide range of other issues that the major labels have had to address much more aggressively.
Overall, Digital Downloads and Album Sales Remain Strong for Classical Music
The classical music industry’s music sales reputation remains largely untouched. Piracy has not ruined smaller classical music labels like it has the major labels nationwide. And a more gradual drop-off in CD sales means that the labels can smoothly transition into 21st century media without angering their buyers or inconveniencing classical music’s biggest supporters.