There once was a time, and it wasn’t too long ago, that store shelves across this country were packed with new releases from major recording artists. Places like Sam Goody, Tower Records, Best Buy and the “big box” stores that carried far more than music and electronics helped make it a good time to be in the CD business. Shoppers could spend an hour flipping through racks of new music and spend $10 to $20 on a new release from their favorite band. Those days, and the nostalgia associated with going shopping for music, are long gone. That’s because the internet — as it has done to so many other industries — changed everything. Along came iTunes, Pandora and Spotify and the need to own a physical copy of new music was relegated to collectors, audiophiles who insisted on full spectrum sound, or obsessives who needed the entire catalogue of a certain artist — or perfectionists who needed the entire catalogue of a certain artist.
Music and media industry veteran Benjamin Liemer was there for the heyday and saw the diversification that took place in-house to keep the industry moving forward. If physical sales were faltering, record labels launched departments that were digitally-focused and dug into their archives for more catalog re-issues and super deluxe packages of classic albums like The Who “Live At Leeds” or The Rolling Stones “Exile On Main Street” to satisfy both physical and digital customers and drive revenue. Benjamin Liemer was director of national sales for a major international music distributor, The Orchard, for nearly a decade. He also spent four years as managing editor of Circus magazine, overseeing an editorial calendar and department, proofreading the publication and interviewing superstars of the era, from Metallica to Motley Crue, in the process.
So, what’s the current state of affairs? According to Ben Liemer, the rise of streaming services is an example of companies going where consumer preference – and, so often, the money – is. A Billboard magazine article from early 2018 states that Spotify had 70 million paid users. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which is the best-selling music album in the world, sold about 66 million copies. This isn’t comparing apples and oranges, says Ben Liemer. Rather, it’s a way of showing constant hunger for music content while proving that one-time CD purchases could never rake in more money than the recurring monthly fees for streaming content.
Change was afoot many years ago and the “Great Recession” of the last decade did no favors for record companies who were depending on disposable income to be spent on new recordings. A 2010 CNN article about major economic woes of that time also states, “the ’90s enjoyed an unnatural sales boost when consumers replaced their cassette tapes and vinyl records en masse with CDs.” This is the take-away says Benjamin Liemer: The great majority of consumers want to own music and will pay money to do so. A physical form, as evidenced by the recent cassette tape resurgence of just a year or two ago, will always continue to exist. Will it ever make record companies as much as it did during the 1970s, 80s and 90s? No, but revenue from streaming services should help to supplant that. In the end, the consumer wins, with a varied choice of formats to suit their needs and tastes.