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Radio Killed CDs

By Sid of Stone Marmot

June 30, 2008

Many people in the music industry are agonizing over the drop in CD sales in recent years. Most people in the industry have been blaming Internet downloading for this decreasing sales. I feel they are completely ignoring, at least publicly, the real reason for the significant drop in CD sales in recent years: RADIO!

Ask yourself: "How many CDs have you purchased recently?" If the answer is few to none, ask yourself "Why?"

I asked myself these questions and my answers are "very few" and the reasons are that I have no clue what songs to purchase or desire to acquire any new songs. Why? Because I haven't heard anything new and have no clue what is out there.

For most of us over the past at least 50 years, radio has been the most significant format for hearing new music. Radio also use to pride itself in giving us the greatest of the latest music. Any stations that played more than a handful of songs per week that were more than a year old were considered to be "oldies" stations and just weren't "hip," weren't "with it." In the past, most of us always had the radio on in our motor vehicles when we were driving around, so it took little additional time or effort on our part to find new music.

Today, it seems like most stations are either news or talk radio, or, if they still play music, play almost nothing but songs that are at least a couple years old, usually much older. Exceptions may be urban music stations, but most of the population just isn't into urban music (Sorry, but I didn't grow up with and can't relate to gangstas, pimps, and hoes and never learned to hum a beat but can readily hum a melody). Even the so called "alternative rock" stations play mostly 5 to 15 year old songs. They even spotlight the very rare and occasional recently released songs they once-in-a-great-while play as "buzz cuts." Hey, Nirvana was great when they first came out, but Cobain has been dead for 14 years now and I'm sick of hearing Nirvana.

Consequently, I don't listen to the radio any more. I'm sick of hearing the same songs over and over and over and over again.

Radio and the music industry used to have a symbiotic relationship. The music industry provided the material radio needed to entertain their listeners. Radio provided a very convenient way for the music industry to present their new product to the public.

The radio industry sometime ago decided their needs (profit) were better served by giving their listeners either talk, news, or songs that have already been proven very popular (it takes time to get proven, hence old songs) to their listeners. Old songs don't sell new CDs, since most who are interested already have CDs of the songs. The music industry hasn't found a replacement as convenient and pervasive as radio for presenting their new product. Hence, CD sales have plummeted.

The major driver for music sales for the last 15 years of the last century was the introduction of the CD player. This encouraged many people to replace their old record, cassette tape, 8 track tape, etc., collections with more reliable, convenient, and (arguably) better sounding CDs. This had artificially inflated recording sales during the 1980s and 1990s. But most people have by now upgraded a significant portion of their recording collections to CDs, so the significance of this factor is waning. Without this factor, the decrease in recording sales due to the changes in radio airplay programming would have been apparent 15 years ago, well before the Internet became popular with the general public.

One reason people listen to radio is to find out what new songs are out there that they might like. In the past, radio had functioned as a prescreener or filter for all the new music out there, allowing only (arguably) the best of all that's available to be presented to its listeners. With virtually no new songs being played any more, modern radio is now failing miserably in this role.

If radio is no longer fulfilling the role as a prescreener or filter for all the new music out there, what, if anything, has taken its place in this role?

An obvious response to this question is music critics and reviewers of both concerts and CDs. These people have always served a useful service of prescreening the vast amount of songs and artists available to their readers for further consideration by their readers, and, thanks to present radio programming, their services are now of even more value. But I suspect few people who would potentially buy CDs actually read these reviews. And few readers will actually go out and buy a CD based on a reviewer's recommendation alone. Most readers will still want to hear the songs first before they buy the recording. The review simply helps guide the readers to what songs and artists the readers should consider listening to. So the review readers still need a means of sampling this recommended music.

Listening stations in recorded music retail stores are one way to sample this recommended music. But only a small proportion of all the recordings on sale in these stores is available on these listening stations. The reason is that there are only so many stations in a given store and each station can only accommodate so many songs, so retailers are charging distributors and record companies for the use of these limited resources. The result is only the richest record labels can afford to have their artist's CDs on these stations. Consequently, the selection of different artists and CDs heard on these listening stations isn't much larger than what is played on the major radio stations.

Also, most people aren't going to drive to a record store just to randomly check out songs on these listening stations just on the off chance that they may hear something that they may want to buy. Since most people don't immediately feel compelled to buy a song on the first listen, they usually have to hear a song at least 3 to 15 times before it hits them that this is a song that they really like and just have to buy, which isn't likely on these listening stations. Consequently, the only real services these stations provide is confirmation that the desired song is on the CD being considered for purchase and that the other songs on the CD are worth listening to, making the CD worth purchasing.

The soundtracks to TV shows and movies is another way for people to hear new music. But people usually only see a movie or TV show once, and if they see it more often, there is usually a long time between views, like months or even years. Most new songs don't grab a person on the first listen. It takes between 3 to 15 listens over a relatively short period of time (a couple weeks) for a good song to really grab someone enough that they will want to acquire it. So, though this helps, it is far from adequate in replacing radio's impact in presenting new songs to the public.

Another means of sampling different artists is by seeing them perform live. But most people aren't going to spend a lot of money and drive any significant distance to see someone they never heard of. Consequently, new artists either 1) have to play a lot of places for very little money to keep ticket prices low enough to attract an audience or 2) open up for someone with a big enough reputation that people will pay a lot of money to see them. But, in the past, a lot of recordings were sold to people who never saw the artist live prior to buying the recording. Consequently, a lot of potential sales are lost by relying on live performances as the primary means of letting the public sample new artists and their songs.

All this brings us to the Internet. Music enthusiasts realized a long time ago that modern radio airplay programming wasn't meeting their needs for introducing them to new music. So many of these enthusiasts turned to the Internet and many artists and other music enthusiasts were quick to oblige these people in satisfying their need. This is further proof of the statement that if the marketplace or the government won't provide a means of satisfying a public desire, the public will find a way to satisfy it themselves. Unfortunately, solutions to problems that are found outside the marketplace may not be the most advantageous to those supplying product to the marketplace. By failing to recognize or even outright ignoring this problem caused by changes in radio programming, the music industry had lost the initiative and control of the marketplace.

I will concede that a lot of CD sales are lost to downloading over the Internet. But I suspect that if the Internet didn't exist, the drop in CD sales would be even worse since the Internet is how many people these days find out about new music.

But the Internet isn't the ideal replacement for radio airplay, either. It is a lot of time and effort to find good music on the net. I myself have better things to do with my time than search the net for potentially good music. There are plenty of other things to do, things I enjoy that are much more convenient. Music sales will NEVER recover to the levels of the 1990s until the music industry finds something as pervasive and convenient for getting their product heard by the general public as radio used to be.

The music industry needs to wake up to this truth. Pirating music over the net is not good. But, if this pirating were totally eliminated, music sales will still not recover until the music industry finds a pervasive and convenient replacement for radio airplay. This is reality. Grow up and get used to it!

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