A lot of the blame seems to be along the lines of there being no good new music, too many people sharing music files, CDs being too expensive and bad marketing by the record companies.
While those reasons may be playing a part, I think there are a couple of other factors at play:
1. Music is competing with other entertainment media more than ever before.
This is one of the reasons I listen to less music than I used to. There is simply so much more out there to entertain me. 25 years ago, in the heyday of my music listening, there were no home computers or laptops, no internet, no cell phones, cable TV had a dozen channels, there were few and very unsophisticated video games, and almost no one had a VCR or video camera. Young people today have all of those things competing for their time and, maybe more importantly, their money. I can guarantee you if those things had been available when I was young, I would have purchased a lot fewer albums (remember vinyl!) and used my money for other cool stuff.
2. There is a huge catalog of old music out there.
While this doesn’t address the overall decrease in music sold, I think it does address the problem of low sales of new music. That is, with so much good older stuff people are using a certain amount of their music budget for things other than the latest releases. A commenter at Kevin Drum’s blog had this to say:
There is plenty of excellent new music out there. The problem is that the old stuff never goes away. In 1940 we had what 20 years worth of recorded music? By 1970 we had say 50-60 years worth of recorded music, most of it not very easily accessible. Today we have nearly 100 years worth of recorded music, much of it very easily accessible to anyone with a computer. We really just don't need new music that much. More practically, I think most iPod owners quickly filled up their iPods with 2000 to 6000 songs and realized - I'll never even listen to half the stuff on my iPod now, what the hell do I want to buy more music for?This gets to something I’ve noticed that’s different from when I was young. In say 1980, the music in our collections (albums!) went back no more than 15 years, to maybe the early Beatles or Stones. Today I know kids have old Zeppelin, Doors, Black Sabbath, and Beatles and Stones stuff, in addition to everything that came after that. That’s going back 40 years. While we had no music in common with our parents, that’s not necessarily true with kids today. (And, by the way, I think that’s great.).
Things will play out just fine even if the music industry isn’t making as much as it used to. I mean, what law of nature says musicians, and especially record companies, have to become fabulously wealthy? Musicians almost universally get into the business because they love the music, not to get rich. Music will always be with us in some form and people will continue to pay for it, even if not as much as they used to.