What the Music Industry Looked Like When Margaret Thatcher Ruled…

The year is 1987, and Margaret Thatcher was entering her third term as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  Political roils aside, here’s what the music industry looked like way back then…


rewindicon Cassettes accounted for more than half (53.2 percent) of recorded music sales (according to RIAA figures).  But CDs were rising fast: discs accounted for 28.6 percent in ’87, and would soon power the largest expansion the recording industry had ever witnessed.  And while Thatcher was as the height of power, vinyl LPs and 45s were slipping towards oblivion.
rewindicon The ‘suggested list retail price’ of a CD in 1987 was $15.61 (about 10.22 pound sterling by today’s equivalent), according to the RIAA.  A cassette album was about half of that.


rewindicon A new group from Los Angeles, Guns N’ Roses, releases Appetite for Destruction.  Sales were initially slow on the album.  Closer to Thatcher territory, Pink Floyd releases A Momentary Lapse of Reason, George Michael releases his first solo album, Faith, and U2 releases The Joshua Tree.

Michael Jackson releases Bad; Peter Tosh is murdered.

rewindicon There were 6 major, global labels: Warner Music Group, EMI Music, CBS Records (soon to be Sony Music Entertainment in a few years), Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG), PolyGram, and MCA Records.

rewindicon The major labels were about to experience 15 years of unprecedented expansion, with newly-minted billionaires, massive corporate takeovers, retail growth, and Wall Street interest ahead.  The MP3 was a completely unknown acronym, and the dangers of the high-quality, digital CD format were largely unknown.  The ‘internet’ was hardly even a word.

rewindicon Rap continued to grow as a format, with hip-hop culture quickly expanding and just spreading to places like the UK.  Eric B. & Rakim, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Kool Moe D, KRS-One, Ice-T, and Dana Dane ruled the emerging rap scene, which was largely dominated by New York with an emerging LA.  Smaller scenes in Atlanta and Miami (bass) were just getting started.

rewindicon The iPod was still 15 years into the future.  Even the Diamond Rio, the first portable MP3 player, was 11 years away.  Instead, the predominant methods for enjoying portable music were the Sony Walkman, Sony Discman, car radio and in-dash tape decks, and portable radio (see Sony Walkman).

rewindicon Justin Timberlake was 6.  Daniel Ek (CEO of Spotify) was 4.  Sean Fanning and Sean Parker (co-creators or Napster) were 7 and 8, respectively.  Justin Bieber would not be born for another 7 years.

rewindicon The RIAA was headed by Jay Berman.  The organization was largely focused on profanity, censorship, physical piracy, and awards certifications.

rewindicon Just like 2013, a large amount of music listening happened inside the car while driving.  But there was less to listen to: radios were AM/FM, in-dash or trunk-based CD playing was rare, while in-dash cassette players were common.  Some older vehicles still had 8-track players.


Image from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  ‘1987’ slide from the RIAA shipment and revenue database.

6 Responses

  1. hippydog

    What would be a really interesting comparison is to look at the music scene in the 1940’s and compare it to today..

    I think there would be some interesting similarities..

  2. wallow-T

    In 1987, home-copying an album had to be done in real time, and one had to pay roughly $2 for a quality C-90 for every two albums copied, or for every mixtape.

    If you wanted to send that cassette copy to someone far away, add another dollar or two for postage.

  3. Chris

    Why have an article headline mentioning a British Prime Minister then use US (RIAA) figures – would it have killed you to use BPI figures for that period?


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