Day 28: A Song that Makes You Feel Guilty

The trouble the music industry is in right now is nothing compared to the hurt they will be feeling in ten years.  But over the past few weeks, I’ve seen the future of the music industry glimmer in the form of a new trend: the music gallery.

For the week ending May 30, the U.S. music industry sold a total of 4,984,000 albums, according to Nielsen Soundscan (via Billboard). This figure, which includes new and catalog releases, represents the fewest number of albums sold in one week since Soundscan began compiling this data in 1994.  By comparison, album sales for the week ending May 31, 2009, totaled 5.76 million. The highest one-week tally recorded during the Soundscan era is 45.4 million albums, in late December, 2000.  And that’s not all: While there’s no exact way to compare last week’s total against imprecise, pre-Soundscan tallies, Billboard estimates that weekly album sales volume could, in fact, be at its lowest point since the early 1970s.

“But that’s okay” music executives nervously counter.  They claim that the revenue is just shifting to other sources: that pre-recorded music these days is, in effect, an ad for other revenue streams.  Though folks will download music for free, these downloads will lure them to go to concerts and buy t-shirts and whatnot.

Everyone in the music industry has been so freaked out by the present that they haven’t bothered to fast-forward the tape ten years or so.  When the twenty year olds of today are thirty, with things like jobs and spouses and kids, the simple fact is that they won’t go to as many concerts.  However, their somewhat advanced age will not slow them from side-stepping iTunes and downloading the music they want.  I know, I can’t predict what technology will be a decade hence, but I think a safe bet is that the downloaders will stay a step or two ahead of the protective labels.

This decade of decline makes me feel a little guilty.  Not because I feel bad for an industry that tried to sell content like boxes of cereal for as long as they could manage (ship out the boxes, take price up every year, and enjoy!).  No, I feel guilty because if there’s anyone who should be propping up the bonuses of record label execs, it should be me.  I devour music, and I used to count shopping in music stores as one of my favored ways to spend a few hours.  But then, they closed all the record stores and I migrated over to a cadre of music blogs who serve as curators of what’s new.

But when a song like this lights up an afternoon, I can’t help but feel a bit weird that I got it for free.  Because this ish knocks!

Tightrope (Wondamix), Janelle Monae (feat. B.o.B. and Lupe Fiasco)

As I write about the doom that aging will cause the music industry, I’m simultaneously noticing an emergent trend: the music gallery: a highly-curated mix of music related items (everything from books to magazines to classes to audio equipment and, yes, pre-recorded music).  Instead of treating music like a commodity, these stores celebrate the role music plays in our lives, and they create a store around it.  It’s the same approach that retail locations like Jack Spade have taken to selling an array of items loosely arranged around an aspirational lifestyle.  Check out the following photo from Transistor Chicago, the most intriguing music gallery I’ve seen thus far.

Another entrant in this mix is Saki in Logan Square.  I haven’t been yet, but the photo below and the reviews I’ve read make it seem very cool.  No depth to the website yet (?), but they’re at the top of my to-visit list.  Along with Longman and Eagle, evidence that the hipster center of gravity in the CHI is definitively moving to Logan Square.

Perhaps the future of the music industry glimmers not in the songs themselves but in the lifestyles that music complements.  Where is this trend going?  How could a music lifestyle offering be taken online?  More on this soon, because I think we might be onto something.

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