Music Biz Bounces Back

Is the music industry in the midst of a turnaround?

A mid-year report from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) notes the first serious upswing in CD shipments to retailers since 1999. For the first half of 2004, ended June 30, shipments of CD albums were up 10.2% compared to the same period in 2003: 270.2 million versus 245.3 million the previous year.

Dollar value of CDs shipped to retailers hit $4.43 billion, a 3.4% gain over the $4.25 billion posted for the first half of 2003. RIAA stats indicate that the average retail price of a CD was $16.39 during the first six months of this year.

Good news though this is for the industry, 2004's first-half shipments still lagged behind 2001's by 4.3%. The upturn came in the wake of stepped-up prosecution of large-scale file sharers and professional pirates. Shipments of recordings in all formats were up 8.5%—a catch-all category that includes 2.1 million cassettes, 600,000 vinyl LPs, 1.9 million vinyl singles, 500,000 music videos, and 11.2 million DVD videos. The RIAA report noted sales of 58.6 million "digital singles" (downloads) but didn't attach a monetary value to these, nor did it add them into the first-half cumulative total.

High-rez is alive but gasping for breath: Shipments of Super Audio CDs and DVD-Audio discs reached approximately 600,000 units, divided almost equally between the two formats. The two high-resolution formats' combined total is a statistically insignificant slice of the 289.8 million units shipped in all formats, but is incontrovertible evidence that many music lovers care about quality. SACD appears to be losing ground to DVD-A. The 300,000 SACDs shipped in the opening months of this year were fewer than half the 689,000 that went out in the first six months of 2003; for DVD-A, the same 300,000 were three times the 100,000 shipped in that period.

Sales of music videos rose by 8.7%, according to the RIAA, whose chart shows simply rough figures of "0.5" million units sold in the first half of 2004 and 2003, respectively. That respectable gain was nothing compared to the doubling of sales for DVD videos, which went from 5.6 million in the first six months of 2003 to 11.2 million in the same period this year. The RIAA chart and accompanying report don't define the difference between "music videos" and "DVD Videos." We can only guess that the latter category includes full-length concerts.

Vinyl LPs and EPs declined by 8.5%, but still managed to match SACD and DVD-A's combined 600,000 units. The dance-club DJ favorite, vinyl singles, shipped 1.9 million units in the first six months of 2004, a modest gain of 1.9% over the previous year. CD singles and cassettes continued to lose popularity, with 55.6% and 68.2% declines respectively. Even so, the 2.1 million pre-recorded cassettes that went to retailers were just under 1% of all recordings shipped, and almost twice the 1.2 million combined total of vinyl LPs, SACDs, and DVD-A discs. The audiophile mission remains unaccomplished.