A global uptick in recorded-music sales brings some much needed relief to executives, but closer analysis finds happy days are still a ways off.
The IFPI's Digital Music Report 2013, released Feb. 26, suggests the bottom of the 13-year-long global revenue slump may be in the rear-view mirror. At the same time, there's no reason to believe strong growth is imminent.
Record industry trade revenue grew a scant 0.3% last year, according to the annual report. That slight glimpse of green shoots was the first annual gain for the global industry since 1999.
Digital revenue increased 9% to $5.6 billion last year and now accounts for 34% of industry revenue. An abundance of legal alternatives has helped turn revenue upward, IFPI chairman Placido Domingo wrote in the report's opening letter. The biggest seller globally was Adele's "21" with 8.3 million units sold, followed by Taylor Swift's "Red" (5.2 million).
Consumers are increasingly discovering new music at subscription services like Spotify and Deezer. Subscription services had 20 million paying customers in 2012, up 44% from 2011. The IFPI estimates subscription revenue surpassed 10% of global digital revenue in 2012 and neared 20% in Europe.
The story of the global industry turnaround is really a collection of many smaller stories. The global market is a jumble of numerous individual markets with their own preferences, customs, laws, telecommunications companies and standards of living. Each country has its own timetable for adopting new technologies and abandoning old formats.
Barely mentioned in the report was Japan, the world's second-largest recorded-music market behind the United States. Ironically, the country that has given the world so many technological innovations has been slow to adopt the innovations that are changing music. The CD utterly dominates industry revenue-and CD shipments rose 10% in 2012.
If only more countries could be like Sweden and Norway-the markets routinely hailed by the IFPI as models of the digital future. Led by high adoption of subscription services, Sweden and Norway grew their recorded-music revenue by 14% and 7%, respectively, in 2012.
There's only one problem: There aren't more Swedens and Norways. Fortunately, there aren't any other Japans, either, but Japan's market in 2011 was 15 times bigger than Norway and Sweden combined. One Japan, one digital laggard with a CD market that could crumble in the coming years, will require many Swedens and Norways to compensate for its losses on the global level.
But the global turnaround isn't just a case of the innovators holding up the laggards. Consider France. The country is the home of subscription service Deezer--second globally behind Spotify--and the HADOPI anti-piracy law. The world's fifth-largest recorded-music market, France's revenue fell 4% in 2012 even though its digital revenue rose 13% and research suggests HADOPI was beneficial to digital sales. France's decline was about 50% bigger than the gains achieved by Sweden and Norway combined.
The United States first had the iTunes store almost 10 years ago and gets a majority of its recorded-music revenue from digital sources. But a look at the U.S. download market finds that part of it is in negative territory. Track sales went from 45.6% growth in 2007 to 5.1% in 2012, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Then, a strong start earlier this year evaporated and track sales are now down 2% through Feb. 24. Digital album sales are faring better than tracks but losing stream: After rising 19% and 14% in 2011 and 2012, respectively, digital albums were up 11% through Feb. 24.