The music industry was the first entertainment business to confront the digital transition, although it was not exactly a willing pioneer. Rather, it was thrust into this role as a matter of survival, as it grappled with the rapid rise of online piracy in the early 2000s.
The music industry was incredibly slow to respond to the digital transition. Napster, the original music piracy site, burst onto the scene in 1999, but it wasn’t until 2004 when Apple iTunes debuted that consumers grew more and more primed to free music.
This was a serious error and haunted the music industry for years thereafter, costing the industry multi-billions in annual sales. The rest of the entertainment industry has taken note and, as a result, all other entertainment sectors, including video, have been comparatively quick to embrace digital distribution.
The music industry, rather than focusing on a legal digital download service, initially focused all its effort on shutting down Napster by way of a copyright infringement lawsuit. Ultimately, the industry prevailed and the courts shut down Napster in mid-2001; however, this was a pyrrhic victory. By the time Napster was shut down, the pirates had moved on to the next new thing: decentralized peer-to-peer file sharing, led by Gnutella. Unlike Napster, these piracy sites were virtually impossible to shut down because there was no central server storing the files. Shutting down Gnutella would have been tantamount to shutting down the entire internet.
In addition to the failure to launch a legal alternative to the pirate sites, the music industry was, understandably, paralysed by its fear of album unbundling. Piracy had given consumers a taste for singles and there was no going back to albums.
Against this backdrop of piracy and absent a legal digital alternative, music sales plummeted. From a peak of nearly US$15 bn in 1999, US music sales declined cumulatively by 15% to US$12 bn in 2003 (previous exhibit). The decline in song units (assuming 10 songs per album) was even more dramatic, declining by 29% cumulatively to 7.7 bn over the same time. Little did the industry know that this was only the beginning of the decline. By 2004, the music industry was in dire straits. Physical sales were in free fall and its own efforts to launch a digital download service were failing.
Apple, with the dominant digital music player and superior software engineering skills, was a perfect partner (nay, savior) for the music industry, with Steve Jobs Achieving a very consumer-friendly retail price of US$0.99 per song and a wholesale price of US$0.70. This wholesale price was, in effect, a 30% price reduction from the implicit price per song on a physical album (i.e., US$10 album wholesale price, 10 songs per album).
After a small bump in sales in 2004 from the launch of iTunes, the declines resumed as the double whammy of album unbundling and a 30% wholesale price cut took its toll. From 2004 to 2014, US music unit and dollar sales declined cumulatively by another 50%, erasing US$5 bn in annual sales.
There is no rest for the weary, and the music industry is already confronting another digital transition, call it digital transition 2.0, in the form of online streaming. Song sales stabilised from 2010 to 2012, but have since resumed declining as music demand is now shifting from digital downloads (ownership) to online streaming (rentals), such as Pandora.
Source: Goldman Sachs