New data reveals hidden market for recycled digital music
A refreshing counterpoint to all those 'See what was trending in 2019' comes in the form of charts listing the most traded-in music of 2019. With export markets in 140 countries, musicMagpie is a UK re-commerce success story which turns unwanted CDs, DVDs, books, smartphones and other tech into cash through a trade-in app. The company is the UK’s number one phone recycler and is the biggest third-party seller in the world on Amazon.
Charts ranking artists by number of CDs traded-in have been produced by musicMagpie. These show that in 2019 the most traded-in artist was Scottish singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi whose single 'Someone You Loved' topped the UK and US charts. Previous artists at the top of the annual recycled chart include George Ezra (2018), Ed Sheeran (2017), Adele (2016), One Direction (2015), Arctic Monkeys (2014) and Lady Gaga (2013). Adele also has the questionable honour of being the most traded-in artist of the decade: a staggering more than half a million of her albums have been bought back by musicMagpie over the last ten years*. Other artists in the decade's trade-in chart are, in descending order, Lady Gaga, Ed Sheeran, Michael Jackson, Coldplay, Madonna, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, One Direction and Fleetwood Mac. (Unfortunately artist listings for classical and other genres are not available).
The artists in these recycled music charts come as no real surprise. Adele was the best selling artist of the decade, so it is predictable that she tops the trade-in chart. But the musicMagpie analysis does raise some important points. The concept of an album 'sale' assumes a one-way transaction from record label to buyer. This concept was appropriate in the era of fragile physical media - shellac and vinyl - but becomes less relevant with the (almost) indestructible CD and totally irrelevant in the era of streaming. Just as e-commerce dramatically reduced the friction of physical distribution, so digital media has almost eliminated the friction of music ownership. CDs can be traded-in, downloads can be deleted, and streamed music is never owned.
Those readers professional involved with the internet will know that measures of web site 'stickiness' - length of time on site and number of return visits - are more important than the braggable metric of site visitor numbers. Yet the success of digital music is still measured in number of album sales, downloads and streams - the equivalent of measuring top line web site visitors. This ignores the vitally important point that digitally empowered friction free music - hear today, gone tomorrow - has lost its stickiness. Classic FM's formula for building headline audience numbers is built on smooth classics, "a sublime selection of relaxing music, designed to ease away the stresses and strains of the day", a formula aped by BBC Radio 3 in a desperate battle for the classical audience. Smooth Radio broadcasts smooth jazz and smooth grooves, and smooth fusions have reduced world music to what modal music master Ross Dally describes as "an offshoot of the pop music industry with an emphasis on party music".
Data from musicMagpie shows that the music of Adele, Ed Sheeran and their peers has a short half-life. That, however, is not a reason for knocking it: because chart music clearly meets an entertainment need. But the success of these artists does depend on producing friction free music that slips effortlessly into the listener's consciousness and ownership, and then slips out again just as easily. It is a compelling formula that art music - classical, jazz, world etc - is increasingly copying in the obsessive search for audience numbers, and that is a dangerous trend.
Hollywood script writer William Goldman explained that the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment tells us lies and comforting truisms that we know already, while art tells us uncomfortable truths we often don't want to hear. Comforting truisms move back and forth effortlessly, but uncomfortable truths stick in our consciousness and affect change by osmosis. If we accept that the primary purpose of art music is not merely to entertain, but also to change - even in some very small way - our consciousness, friction free music undermines that fundamental raison d'être.
* This impressive statistic does raise the important point that sales of previously-owned CDs, DVDs etc are not counted in any chart - remember that musicMagpie is just one of many online resellers. I am a heavy user of musicMagpie and other vendors for CD and, especially, book purchases. The majority of my considerable number of book purchases is previously-owned copies from Amazon resellers. None of these re-commerce transcations are reported in industry statistics.
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