The Struggle of Physical Music in the Modern Day

Music surrounds everyone. From film and radio, to buskers on the high street crucifying your favourite songs. Music is everywhere, and it would appear the music industry is benefitting from it. A massive 109 million annual growth in 2018 would prove this. Yet there is a side of this coveted business that seems to be struggling immensely; the side in which sells physical music. 

Although the music industry is seeing growth in the tens of millions each year, physical music sales such as cds, vinyl and cassettes have been in a steady decline over the last decade. Physical music sales dropped by a huge 13.2 million (or 22.1%) last year and this slump shows no signs of slowing down.

The slump has had incredibly adverse effects on music selling high street stores. Even the UK powerhouse HMV has not been immune to the changing landscape of the industry. Having entered into administration for the second time since its creation in 1921, the company was saved by Canadian entrepreneur Doug Putman but at the expense of 27 stores across the whole of the United Kingdom. Staff of the famous music retailer suffered a reported 455 job losses, a truly devastating statistic.

The obvious reason most would point to for the growing lack of interest in physical releases would be the birth of online streaming services. Such services allow the users to fin, download and listen to music in a matter of seconds. For around £10 a month, the consumer has access to a huge online library. From The Beatles to Justin Bieber, it’s all there, neatly packed into an app on your phone. 

What started off as a Spotify dominated market has now grown immensely; Apple, Google and now even YouTube offer streaming services making a person’s options that bit more expansive.

With the troubles HMV have encountered and the on-going threat of Spotify and co, it would be a complete mystery to some in understanding just how small independent record stores are weathering the storm. And whilst some indie record stores have felt the bite of the internet age, others seem to be thriving.

Love Music Glasgow

One such store is Glasgow’s much-famed ‘Love Music’. Located beside Queen Street Station, and hosting an abundance of new vinyl and much sought after rarities, Love Music is an absolute must for all record collectors. Shop owner, Sandy, is a veteran in this market and when asked if purchases in store have been increasing he is more than happy to answer “Oh big time yeah! Every year it doubles and doubles. I think we hit peak vinyl (sales) last year. It’s still at a good level.”

Sandy has even noticed a shift in the age of people entering the shop: “Younger definitely. It’s the teenagers and 20 something year olds that don’t have responsibilities. And older people in their 50s and 60s from when the NME was big in the eighties and there were lots of record shops. There is a gap in the middle with the young married couples, who don’t have the space or the disposable income.”

When quizzed on why he thought more young people were getting into the format of vinyl his answer was simple: “I think it’s got a lot to do with publicity. I think Record Store Day was a huge thing to get the publicity, to get awareness that vinyl is still out there.

“It’s been the saviour of us. We wouldn’t have survived, probably, if we didn’t have Record Store Day. It’s a big boost for us every year!”

Record Store Day has often been heralded as the saviour of many independent record stores. Established in 2008, the yearly event has seen thousands of people flock to their nearest record store, vying for the chance to get their hands on some limited edition releases.

“We do three months money in one day. Three months! I do a tax return every three months and for the two quarters leading up to it (Record Store Day) was the same as the Record Store Day weekend. It’s just nuts.

“We have to pay for all the stuff. It’s not free, but it still leaves us a few grand to pay rent, to pay the bills. The electricity bills have gone crazy!”

Record Store Day may have saved Love Music, but new problems have arisen with the birth of the internet, with peak selling times in store now changing:

“Christmas has changed a lot since Amazon came along. It isn’t as busy as it used to be. There used to be a big steady rise. Now that’s gone, it’s just a small bump. When we now hit the spike, is when Amazon say you can’t get it (in time) for Christmas.”

Although, the internet is not completely bad, as Sandy now uses eBay to maximise the pull of the store: “We’ve got hundreds of stock here and we have the world as our customer now. Especially with second hand (records) and collectables. 

“If you had a really nice rare thing here, it would only sell to the customers who come into the shop, which is a fraction of the population. But if I put it on eBay and post it on social media, then anyone who uses these (websites), can see this rarity.”

Despite the fact Love Music have learned to use the internet as an asset, there is still one big shadow cast upon the physical music landscape. Streaming services.

“I don’t object to it that much because to me it’s kind of like the radio.”

But there is a downside: “A lot of people used to buy albums out of curiosity, to see what it sounded like. Now they can just scratch that itch, go onto Spotify and hear the album in a really short amount of time. It kinda takes away from the discovery.”

Of course, the conversation quickly turned to where Sandy envisaged the future of physical music heading: “Physical (music) is definitely very threatened. The vinyl revival and Record Store Day came along at the right time but Spotify is a complete game changer.”

These sentiments were also echoed in a survey carried out around Glasgow Clyde College. Of the people who undertook the survey, 66% said that streaming services would eventually lead to physical music becoming obsolete, with 88% also stating that streaming services was their preferred means of listening to music. Another interesting statistic from the survey was that 55% of people felt a lack of purchases could be detrimental towards the artist themselves.

It is no secret that many of today’s most famous musicians have been actively against streaming services. British rock legend, Noel Gallagher, stated in an interview with Toronto Star: “I don’t stream music. If I want it, I’ll buy it.” He continued: “I don’t need access to 3 billion sh*t tunes.”

But for some artist, their feeling on streaming services are mixed. For up and coming bands it can be used as a way of exposure, to get people interested in their music. One such band is ‘Shambolics’. Hailing from Fife, the indie four piece, has managed to garner a hard-core following. Leading them to headlining venues such as the world renowned ‘King Tuts Wah Wah Hut’.

Speaking to bass player, Jordan McHatton, the question of streaming services being a positive or negative opened an interesting discussion: “It’s a tough one because it’s a massive platform to allow you to share and promote your music. We’ve got nearly a quarter of a million streams on one of our tunes so it’s definitely helped massively to allow new people to get into the band.” He continued: “However you’re a small fish in a massive pond, it’s diluted with so much competition that it makes it so much harder to reach the top. Also, musicians are criminally underpaid by these companies, artists are being paid less than a penny a tune which is madness.”

McHatton also spoke about the necessity of bands having to tour more often to make ends meet: “As a band we’ve never made a profit from a gig or tour. Everything has went back into funding the next tour. Travel/accommodation etc, it’s not cheap so it’s a bonus if you break even.”

Another topic McHatton touched on was if the band would benefit from releasing music on a physical format: Yeah, obviously financially it would help the band as you make more from physical releases. Also I feel people appreciate a physical release more, as we’ve seen recently there’s been an increase in vinyl sales so there is still a demand for physical releases.”

McHatton continued: “Hopefully it remains “trendy” with vinyl releases. And hopefully that blends into CD’s etc. I’ve seen a few bands doing cassette tape releases which is really cool hopefully that’s something we can do in the near future.”

As McHatton and the student survey have hinted, bands could face a detriment if physical releases were to completely disappear. Yet, if the trends keep going in the direction they are, it seems only inevitable. Although, no one foresaw the vinyl revival and how it ignited peoples interest in purchasing records once more. In the world of music we can never be too sure what is going to happen.

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