Updated: Recording Sales Declines & Musician Employment, 1999-2011…

Update: July 6th, 2013: This article was published last August, but there was an important error just raised (thanks to Noël Ramos of Independent Music Conference for realizing it).  The axes were actually reversed, meaning ‘Musical Groups and Artists’ and ‘Recorded Music Shipments’ were representing the wrong things; the corrected graphic is below (the story itself remains the same).


more music being created than ever before, but paradoxically, musicians are making less. Which means there are also fewer musicians and music professionals enjoying gainful employment, thanks
to a deflated ecosystem once primed by major labels and marked-up CDs.

It’s a difficult reality to stomach, especially given years of misguided assumptions about digital platforms.  But it’s not really a revolution if it’s not getting people paid.  And according to stats supplied by the US Department of Labor, there are 41 percent fewer paid musicians since 1999.

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These are self-reported musicians in Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys, though the pressing question is how tightly correlated this is to recording sales.  Sadly, the connection might be stronger than many imagine.

(there’s more on this topic in this RIAA presentation from June, specifically around 14:30…)  

57 Responses

  1. Glenn Galen - Minneapolis

    Given the production tools available, thanks to the technology revolution, it’s become fairly easy to make simple, beat-driven computer-assisted music that is quite pleasing to the “masses”.
    If the listening public demanded more sophisticated art that took years of practice to learn to do…then those who could do it could charge for it….because it sould be scarce and in high demand.

    • Visitor

      While the spread of cheap recording tech has had an impact, there are as many bands using it to get quick and cheap recordings of their stuff out there as electronic musicians. If you look at dance music sites like beatport.com –where sales of maybe 50 downloads will get you into the top ten on their charts — it’s not clear that it’s the “simple, beat-driven computer-assisted music” that’s stealing listeners. i think there’s a huge audience for all sorts of music; the problem is that the vast majority of listeners don’t support the musical ecosystem by paying into it.

    • Frunobulax

      Despite referring to pop musicians as “artists” and geniuses, creating pop music has always been pretty cheap and simple.
      I know this will infuriate a lot of producers and engineers in the business, but c’mon, pop hits were made with four or five people and a microphone for the past 60 years.
      The listening public will never demand “sophisticated art” they just want marketing people to tell them that the product they consume is “sophisticated art.”

      • @indiecalp

        Haha, your point about the masses wanting to think that they’re listening to ‘sophisticated’ music is right on the dot.

    • bored to death

      Yawn. More propaganda from the paid bloggers in the free culture crowd.
      If you keep saying it enough you’ll eventually convince yourself.
      Why can’t you just admit that revenue to artists is down, and down a lot. And it’s hurting artists.

      See occam’s razor, but all these complex assumption-adding denials make your crowd sound like the global warming hoax crowd or anti-evolution fundamentalists. Y’all are beyond reason.
      boring boring boring.

      • Anonymous

        Yeah, sales are down. Part of it has to do with the fact that the economy sucks and people don’t want to waste their disposible income on luxury items, and no matter how you slice it, CDs are a luxury item.

    • Visitor

      This is exactly why music has increased while professional musicians has plummeted.

      Sad relaity is it’s only the music that matters in the end of the day. And if consumers are happy with dubsteb and other autotuned techno-crap comming out by the thousands per day, then who are we to judge them.

    • Visitor

      The vast majority of music sold today is autotuned pop garbage. Just listen to the radio or Billboard. About 86% of music revenues come from mostly computerized music by four (three soon) record companies. Sad

    • J

      True and good point, however, you’re missing the point of this correlation. It’s not about good or bad, easy or hard. It’s that people are stealing recorded music instead of paying for it, and that is not only bringing the sales numbers down, it is bringing the overall income levels of people in music down across the board.
      That is a different and important correlation all together.

      • DJ BBKING

        C’est la vie folks. Things change. People aren’t stealing music. It just happens to be available for free. The only people affected are the artists that are already rich. New artists know that getting their music to as many listeners as possible is the goal. From that, comes opportunities for live appearances and licensing. Sorry, but the days of sitting back and raking it in are over. Musicians have to work just like everyone else. The sooner everyone accepts this, and figures out how to work with it, the better off they’ll be.

        • Tel

          I tend to agree regarding ‘work’! When I look back to previous eras (i.e. when CDs sold in their truckloads) and see the excesses that successful musicians enjoyed – the drugs, booze, constant partying, orgies etc. – all the rewards of releasing a popular album or two, I have wondered as I’ve got older just how deserving they were of all that wealth when you see what they did with it. You can pick up any number of famous musician/band’s biographies and find hundreds of tales of debauchery, something that normal hard-working people simply can’t fit or afford into their lives even if they wanted to.

          When you compare music as work to the jobs that most people have to force themselves to do in order to support themselves, it’s really not a bad line is it? It just takes a ton more imagination and effort these days to pull it off across all areas of what makes a musician appealing (not just the music but everything else as well). There are plenty of very hard working musicians out there who do anything to make a name and a living for themselves, and they are able to make an income from it. I’m always reading about young artists who bring out clothing labels, put on live nights, produce, guest on other’s records, are multi-instrumentalists and go about their work sober, focused and determined. Look at more established bands like Elbow too. You can tell they put everything into their records and their reward is a loyal fanbase cultivated over 20yrs.
          To illustrate the other side of what I’m talking about these days, when it comes to rock/indie type bands particularly, I often feel, from being in bands and gigging myself and observing hundreds of other musicians, that the majority think that if they adopt a Jagger pout or a Gallagher swagger, and exhibit a drinking habit to match, that somehow the gods will shine down on them and hand them a £10m record contract. Too many musicians think that all they need to do is write some songs, go to the studio and then it will all fall into place.
          Technology has done damage to the record industry, like it has in other areas of life, but it has also brought the great possibility of direct communication with fans all over the world. To be a successful musician, you also need to be a great communicator, understand your audience inside out and employ whatever techniques and tools to keep them engaged.
          A lot to do, but no-one said it was easy, and it beats working in an office 9 hrs a day surely?

          (Just so you know, I’m not working in the music industry, just an outside observer as a keen amateur guitarist, so I appreciate my views may be a bit ‘rosey’)

  2. robert steele

    Its not just music. Piracy is shrinking six major US industries: recorded music, home video, packages software, video games, books and cable TV. US Home video sales (DVD, BluRay, PayTV, VOD, Streaming) are down 25% to $18.5B in 2011 from $25B in 2006. The first BitTorrent search engines debuted in 2004. Recorded music is down worldwide from $27B in 1999 (Napster) to $15B in 2011. Those are real jobs lost that are not coming back until the public realizes that these are your friends and neighbors whose careers are being destroyed by lack of copyright enforcement. Who is destroying these industries, ISPs who profit from providing free illegal content. ISPs only have safe harbor from their liability for all of the copyright infringement is they are terminating repeat infringers, which they are not. If ISPs were obeying the law, 18% of all US internet traffic would not be used to destroy all of these American industries.

    • Ben

      American industries? Hello, this is the rest of the world. We make quite a lot of good music too.
      And it’s not just piracy. The democratisation of recording and distribution, the increased competition for entertainment £££ etc.

      • Anonymous

        It’s typical American arrogance. Mumbai outdoes Hollywood by a wide margin. Which of course brings us to another point… Hollywood, the RIAA and the rest have marginalized so-called ‘world music’ and ‘foreign cinema’ to a ghetto niche. Its very hard for these movies, TV shows, musicians and the rest of their popular media to reach US audiances, even though much of it is good (or at least better than the Justin Bieber and Brittney Spears crap that’s inundating us right now), even though the big US studios have the resources and ability to impose themselves on India, China, Korea, Malaysia, Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Sweden, Ireland, Nigeria, Uganda, Mexico, Colombia, Italy, Greece, Serbia, France and every other country on earth (often quite unsuccessfully I might add). Regional encoding was just another example of this, making it harder for US consumers to get foreign media.

        • Tel

          Agreed. American companies have been the worse perpetrators of restrictive practices when it comes to produced content. And to take your example, to call any film that isn’t in English ‘World Cinema’ is patronising beyond belief.
          The general public have had to suck up what’s been spoonfed to them by Hollywood and the Record Label Majors for too long. Now, through the internet, we have more information and therefore can make better-informed choices about what media we consume based on what we actually like.
          People will never stop loving music, film or books, but the gigantic marketing machines won’t have so much hold over our decisions anymore. They don’t like that, because they have shareholders to satisfy and to them all they’re interested in is more and more profit year on year.
          The younger generation today don’t revere these giant institutions like previous generations may have done. We can see through it – the bigger these companies become, the more stupid they become and they more information we receive, the more sophisticated we become. That’s why Hitler and Mao were very approving of the idea of burning books to limit knowledge.

          My answer to the original poster above: if the industry’s not working for you right now, find a way of making it work, without ripping off consumers and musicians if at all possible.

    • Visitor

      I think ISPs are obeying the law. The law needs to change. Copyright holders need to lobby hard. EFF and their anti-copyright enablers Google et al are running the show right now, they just say more laws equal job killers and innovation killers. What a bunch of political horse sh*t.
      Until the law changes online music business and most other copyrightable content providers/distributors will flail then fail.
      Right now the law is left with only one option and that’s to call out the SWAT team and do like they did kim Dotcom. Now I am certainly no fan of copyright piracy, but this tactic is extreme and difficult to prosecute. also unwanted effect of creating martyrs for the EFF crowd.

  3. autobasher

    If only the RIAA had sued more people….

    Music industry leaders have done all they can to resist new technology instead of adopting and adapting. The golden goose is dead. CDs at 20 dollars were a bubble.
    I mourn the loss of musicians jobs, but I’m still hopefull that these revolutionary changes in the medium will eventually make the profession better and more lucrative.

    I really wish people would stop blaming the immorality of ‘pirates.’ A copy of a digital recording costs 0 dollars to create and distribute. Sorry.

    • Digtal Utopian Bullshit.

      well these “changes” have been here for at least a dozen years. the jury is in. Despite thousands and thousands of musicians experimenting with the new model one thing is perfectly clear: The digital revolution is a corporate counter revolution. There has been a mass transfer of wealth from those that create the art to a handful of digital companies that distribute and monetize music.

      • autobasher

        So simplistic.
        First of all, the music audience has massively massively benefitted. If every album is really worth 20 bucks think of how culturally rich all those downloaders are now?
        Second, I totally disagree that the jury is in. There still hasn’t been any major adaptation. iTunes is the only real novelty business-wise and that didn’t come from the labels.
        Its possile there will be SOPA / PIPA / ACTA type law that tries to impose the old economic model on the new technology. That would be a genuine new world.
        My prefered approach is like a massive global free-to-use library that compensates contributers based on the popularity of their work… and is funded either by like a broadbased cheap subscription service or even taxes.
        Either way, the idea that this is the new music business landscape get used it… seems obviously wrong.

          • Visitor

            It isn’t, it’s working for music customers though. Music (and entertainment media in general) has never been cheaper..

          • Frunobulax

            If you give away any product for free it is a win for the consumer in the short term. But maybe not long term.
            The intent of copyright law was and is to promote the creation of new works. If the substance of copyright is diluted so much that it does not exist in the digital world then (in theory) the quality and quantity of any new copyrightable works will dilute proportionately.
            Maybe so. IMO if copyright in the digital domain doesn’t change soon we will find out how many people are willing to continue to make and distribute digital works.

        • herewegoagain

          > A copy of a digital recording costs 0 dollars to create and distribute. Sorry.
          You’re making the assumption that what’s being stolen is the work itself. But what’s actually being stolen is the money.
          The moment you created that copy, you created an obligation to pay the artist; and obligation on which you subsequently reneged. Put differently, in making that copy, you released your legal and moral claim to a very specific portion of your wealth (say, $0.99). Only, instead of transferring the cash to its true and proper owner, you decided to keep it. And that is theft.

        • DJBBKING

          Yup. You said it better than I did (above). Accept and adapt, people. There’s still money to be made. It simply has to be made differently. Remember the duplication tax on CDs? Where did that money go? To the artists? Which ones? The squeakiest wheels are not the artists, but those that benefitted from them for years.

      • Music Buyer

        That model you propose falls apart because no one is left to pay for the initial recording sessions.

      • jdestro2

        I don’t like the idea of a free library that compensates artists based on the popularity of their work. Popularity has nothing to do with how much time the artist spent creating the work, or how much it costs to market it.
        Although artists today make very little money; at least if they retain the rights to their work and distribute it themselves; they get to keep all the money they make.
        Just because people can get something for free; doesn’t mean they should. I think there are very valid reasons for copyright laws, and am hopeful that there will be reasonable and effective ways to enforce them.
        Right now that seems like an ever-diminishing possibility; but I’m holding out hope that “intellectual property” can actually remain the property of the intellectual who created it–and that (he or she) can actually get paid for it.

  4. Visitor

    Music is basically done in cycles. We can just release the same two decades of music and over, no one would notice.

    • Big Swifty

      That is done already. It is the repackaging and marketing that has to be paid for

  5. Edward H.

    I just spent a hundred dollars supporting indie bands by buying CDs at Amoeba Records in Berkeley not two hours ago.

  6. neville elder

    Well, we’re not making money so we have to work other jobs and if you’re doing something else other than music full time you have less time and energy to develop said craft. Working all night in a bar and part time teaching leaves me knackered. I can’t playwrite/reherse like I used too.
    More music made cheaply, yep? great one-of-a-kind ground breaking music? Not so much actually.
    And as for the comments about if the public want shit let them have it and bugger the rest? SHUT UP IDIOT.

  7. John Matarazzo

    I think this is called Economics 101: Supply & Demand.

  8. The Ghost That Walks

    I think you have to accept the situation, and realise it could be a long time before, if ever, we go back to paid for music as a product.
    I’ve talked to a few people both successful in the past, present and just about to step away from the day job.
    Renaat from R&S Records, Guy Tavares from Bunker records in Belgium and The Exaltics from Germany.
    The things that seperates them are becoming clear:
    Passion – They love what they do, they do it because it’s their mission
    Hard Work – Renaat has made millions, yet still works 7 days a week and has had 1 holiday in 25 years
    Never Giving Up – All these people just never give in and go for their dreams
    On top of that you do of course need a little luck.

    Adapting and diversifying as much as possible is something that seems to crop up as well, finding other revenue sources to keep you going.

    • Cameron Mizell

      Paul, where do you get your statistics and figure a 41% decline in paid musical groups and artists? I looked up the numbers on the US Census Bureau’s website, and assuming you’re using the actual classification of musical groups and artists (NAICS code 711130), I’m only calculating a 15% decline in employment. Are you including other classifications in that calculation?
      I’m a working musician myself, and I agree that there are fewer jobs available today than 10 years ago, but it’s difficult to discuss a correlation between the data on this graph if the data isn’t exactly clear.

      • Cameron Mizell

        Here’s a look at the bigger picture from a working musician’s perspective.

      • paul

        I’ve seen some differing stats from the Dept. of Labor, however that stat is from the RIAA, representing BLS stats. It was presented by president Cary Sherman during a June presentation (linked above).

        • Cameron Mizell

          Ok, thanks for the clarification. I watched that presentation (at least the part you mentioned) but have a little bit of a hard time swallowing some of the information the RIAA presents. The BLS stats I found, with the help of somebody in the Department of Labor, never added up to such an extreme decline. It’s hard to find exact numbers, though.

  9. Jim Bryan

    There’s also a trend toward small venue live music and 3-day superfestivals that permit outstanding artists to profit from their talents FREE of their big labels. Take Squeeze for example. Never profitable under their label despite wide airplay and great sales in the 70s and 80s, as indie rockers, 3 of the early band members are touring and recording with fair success.

  10. danwriter

    Sales of a product go down. Revenues to those who make that product decline in a correlative manner. Just because it’s music it should defy Adam Smith?

    • Visitor

      What really doesn’t make sense is despite it all, the net amount of music being created has only increased.

  11. mdti

    photography brings so much more happiness…. switch to it musicians…. forget about making money with art. soon you will realize that was not why you began doing it, and that is a story from the past. do something else. let the music die so it can reborn later…. much later….

  12. mdti

    don’t confuse the democratization of production tools with “internet leads to more music”… this has nothing to do.
    china leads to more music by producing cheapzer production tools.
    internet leads to everyone using instagram..
    these are two different htings and have nothing to do with music business or amount of good music available.

  13. Pat

    In my opinion this whole thing comes down to a really simple business model regarding a product’s lifespan:
    First, you have a new idea, it takes awhile to catch on with the early adopters being a marketing tool via word of mouth (this is when CDs were new and tapes were leading the market), then it becomes adopted as a standard and it peaks (as one person mentioned above, a bubble). This is when you went to FYE/DiscJockey/SamGoody and found paying 20+ dollars for an album to be OK. Major record companies wanted to improve already booming profits so they sold CDs to Best Buy/Target/Walmart who retailed them cheaper than the traditional record stores so they could be a loss leader. Over the past ten years this drove many traditional record stores out of business and now the big labels have been forced to cut costs for major retailers, since they now have the leverage. At this point in the life cycle of the CD we have gone beyond the “cash cow” stage where profits are pouring in and have entered the product decline stage. Soon it will not make financial sense to sell CDs in the way they are sold today.
    The unfortunate part of what I just described above is that it doesn’t just pertain to CDs. It’s all recorded music (LP/CD/Digital even). Digital music isn’t the savior of the industry that we had hoped for. So now what? Well, there’s going to be something that comes in and takes over or acts as an intermediary. What? Noone knows, but the market will dictate it.
    Music won’t go away, as you can tell by this info.. More musicians making music, less getting paid for it. (Which decreases quality overall, unfortunately, and makes it confusing for the consumer to find “good” music). So, all of this will eventually subside and musicians will find a way to keep making enough $$ or get rewarded with other things to keep going with their craft.
    I could see music going to a more hyper-regional level over time, and it being done more independently (even more so than now). Major labels may still exist, but they will have to drastically alter their expectations and what it is they do. The marketing and distribution reach and range of a major label cannot be competed with by smaller, indie labels, or by actual independent musicians. So, they may fall into that niche of being an intermediary, which is kind of what they are now, but moreso focusing on cutting costs and changing up how their current contracts work (ie- giving more to the artist and running their business as a “marketing service” instead of promotion based to drive sales and profits. Have artists pay for production costs and other things, working with them instead of trying to own them.
    But, I don’t know how this would all pan out financially, or if it would work at all. Someone has to figure it out or we’ll all just be a bunch of hippies sitting around with our acoustic guitars, serenading the opposite/same sex, and waiting for John Belushi to come by and kick in our guitar.. not that that would be so bad.

    • mdti

      great post.

      I wonder when Steve Stevens will release his next album…. can’t stand the wait anymore…. 😀

  14. Gypsyman5

    I notice that no one has mentioned the radical decline of local venues. What difference does it make what the “Labels” do if there are no places for bands to get started in the first place?
    Where I live there is a small city that used to have at least 50 live music venues but since the change of the DUI laws most of them have gone out of business. Now there are no more than 10, and the ones that are left don’t want to pay bands what they made 20 years ago.
    And in the more rural areas it is even worse! Every crossroads and tiny town used to have one or more venues, but now they are almost all gone. All the animal clubs (Eagles, Elks, Moose, and etc.) have given up the ghost, and the other places are following suit.
    I have a friend who has played in the same band for over 20 years ago, and just a few years ago they were playing over 100 gigs a year. In the last 12 months, less than 20! And believe me, it is not because they have gotten old and rusty. They learn new material, add originals, and have added a new, young guitar player who has his fingers on the pulse of new music. All to no avail.
    Gigs and venues have, and are disappearing! If anyone has a cure for this situation, I would love to hear it.

  15. Visitor

    Everything will fail and die. The internet has made it impossible to protect copyright law, and people do not care enough for their own artists to actually behave. The old world is dead.
    The new world will follow the path that classical music did… In the classical world, people generally prefer older works – pieces of music that are hundreds of years old. The modern classical composer has little hope of anything more than a teaching job – maybe at a university if he/she is lucky.
    The public has spoken. The law makers have spoken. Both have failed us. It is too late now and they should learn to get comfortable in the new grave they just dug.

  16. Karl Giesing

    I know this article is a couple of years old. But, with the NYT article, people are linking to it once again.

    And frankly, I am finding it very hard to verify this data.

    For example, one of the axes is called “Musical Groups and Artists.” However, there is no BLS category by that name. Did you mean:

    – 27-2042 Musicians and Singers
    – 27-2040 Musicians, Singers, and Related Workers
    – 27-2000 Entertainers and Performers, Sports and Related Workers

    Whatever the category, none of these occupations has suffered a 41% drop.

    For example:

    In 2002, there were 53,900 musicians and singers (27-2042). In 2012, that number was 42,100. This means that the decline was roughly 22% – less than half of what this article claimed.

    In 2002, there were 128,800 workers in the “Performing Arts, Spectator Sports, and Related Industries” group (NAICS 711). In 2012, there were 116,580 workers. That is less than a 10% decline.

    The 41% number is suspiciously close to the 45% number endorsed by pro-Operation-Goliath sites like the Trichordist. If that’s the case, then the numbers are bogus. I’ve debunked that figure here:

    Of course, I could be wrong. But it would be nice if us readers could actually see the numbers.