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Chicago-based music critics Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot-- the guys who came to Bumbershoot and told musicians they should make their living as plumbers --host

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Sound Opinions Wins an Early Grammy for Most Pollyannaish Performance in an Analysis of the State of the Music Industry

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Chicago-based music critics Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot--the guys who came to Bumbershoot and told musicians they should make their living as plumbers--host the syndicated radio program Sound Opinions, which airs locally on KUOW. In last week's show, Kot chimed in on Nielsen SoundScan's recently released year-end report that shows, once again, that sales of recorded music are still falling fast. Album sales are down 13 percent over last year, down more than 50 percent from their peak in 2000.

Yet Kot looks at the declining sales numbers and sees a huge silver lining: Hooray! Now that you don't have to pay for music to hear it, "more people than ever in the history of recorded music are listening to more music than ever."

What's most troubling about his analysis is that it furthers the notion that illegal downloading isn't a detriment to the music industry--which it is--but is in fact morally justifiable.

Here's a look at his analysis, which I break down after the jump. You can hear the whole show for yourself here. You'll hear this at 6:30.

Kot: To me, Jim, the key story here is not only that album sales are once again down--they're down 13 percent--but music purchases are again over 1.5 BILLION. That is significant, 'cause I think what we're seeing now is a two-fold story on the part of the music industry. Obviously CDs and albums are trending downward, but more people than ever in the history of recorded music are listening to more music than ever.

The fact that they are purchasing 1.5 billion pieces of music every year--that's combined albums and singles, downloads, physical sales, etc.--that's huge. And then you factor in the number of people that are sharing music files out there on the net without paying for them at all, you've got an incredible audience for music. So people are talking about the death of the music industry. No! Maybe a segment of the industry's dying. But in terms of the health of music itself, people want this stuff. The story of the next 10 years is how is the music industry going to figure out how to get them to pay for it.

You're going to like this, Jim. Vinyl album sales are again huge this year.

DeRogatis: Relatively speaking.

It is the single biggest upward trend in the music industry. Although it still represents a very small percentage of the market. We had 2.8 million vinyl albums purchased in 2010, more than in any other year in the history of Nielsen SoundScan, which began in the early '90s, obviously the start of the CD era. But vinyl's picking up big time, and the bulk of those sales, more than 70 percent, were at those indie record stores. So I think we're seeing a renaissance not only in vinyl album sales but in the ubiquity and the strength of those indie mom-and-pops that have kept the music industry thriving for decades.

OK, let's start with the most obvious perversion of these numbers:

"The fact that (people) are purchasing 1.5 billion pieces of music every year . . . that's huge."

Yes, 1.5 billion is a very, very large number. But what Kot forgot to mention is that it's barely HALF of the music that was sold in 2000. SoundScan compiles "all albums and track equivalent albums" in the report and comes up with 443.4 million units. There were 785.1 million albums sold. Music sales are in the toilet. They're not "huge."

"And then you factor in the number of people that are sharing music files out there on the net without paying for them at all, you've got an incredible audience for music. So people are talking about the death of the music industry. No! Maybe a segment of the industry's dying."

Yes, the segment of the industry that FINANCES the music, also known as RECORD LABELS. Kot and DeRogatis have painted record labels -- specifically the majors--as institutions that rip off artists. But when labels aren't around to help finance the music, don't expect the music to keep being made. Some of it will be, yes. But much of it won't, especially when everyone's busy paying the rent as plumbers.

Kot and DeRogatis' remarks remind me of Barsuk Records co-founder Josh Rosenfeld's comment to me last year: When labels of any size are painted broadly as industry villains, "it's just like one more little chip on the scales of how the public views this whole business. And if that's driving people to feel like it's an ethically pure act to take the music without paying for it, it's a bummer."

"Obviously CDs and albums are trending downward, but more people than ever in the history of recorded music are listening to more music than ever."

OK, the SoundScan numbers here don't say that. But let's assume that it's true, that people are listening to more music than ever before. What a shocker. If ice cream became free, we'd all start eating the hell out of them, too, but it doesn't mean that ice cream is tasting better.

When falling numbers are reacted to with "Yay! Everyone's listing to music!" rather than "Illegal downloading is hurting record labels and artists," it makes it seem OK to keep on stealing music.

"Vinyl album sales are again huge this year. It is the single biggest upward trend in the music industry. Although it still represents a very small percentage of the market. We had 2.8 million vinyl albums purchased in 2010, more than in any other year in the history of Nielsen SoundScan."

We all love vinyl. We all know it sounds better. We all know it's selling better than it has in the past. But what Kott neglects to point out is that vinyl sales still accounts for just ONE PERCENT OF ALBUMS SOLD. Huge? Hardly. Cool? Definitely.

"But vinyl's picking up big time and the bulk of those sales, more than 70 percent, were at those indie record stores. So I think we're seeing a renaissance not only in vinyl album sales but in the ubiquity and the strength of those indie mom-and-pops that have kept the music industry thriving for decades."

We all love our mom-and-pop shops, which Seattle has in spades. They provide the best experience for purchasing music. And, yes, they're shoveling out vinyl like crazy. But indie shops are not the retailers "that have kept the music industry thriving." Kott forgets to mention that just 8 percent of music sold last year was sold by an indie seller, compared to 33 percent at "mass merchants" like Walmart and Target, and 26 percent at digital services like iTunes and Amazonmp3.

Cool? Yes. Keeping the industry thriving? No.

 
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