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The Rise And Fall (And Rise Again) Of Music Sales, By Format (1973-2021)

Tyler Durden's Photo
by Tyler Durden
Sunday, Jan 15, 2023 - 11:00 PM

We live in a world of music. Whether when driving to work or jamming out at home, people around the world like to have their favorite tunes playing in the background.

But while our love for music has been constant, the way we consume media has evolved drastically. The past 50 years have seen many different music formats used to access these tunes, mirroring society’s shift from analog to digital.

This video, created by James Eagle vis Visual Capitalist using data from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), highlights sales of different music formats in the U.S. over the last 50 years.

Vinyl

Up until the late 1980s, vinyl dominated the music format industry, earning billions of dollars in sales annually. Records of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon were some of the top selling albums available.

Vinyl is said to provide its listeners with analog sounds that reverberate and the warm notes of almost-live music. For vinyl users and enthusiasts to this day, the music produced by these sleek yet massive records is unparalleled.

8-Track

If you’re a millennial (or younger), you may have never heard of the 8-track. But this music format played an integral part in the history of music.

When the booming automotive vehicle industry found it challenging to translate the music experience to cars using vinyl, it looked to the “Stereo 8” eight-track cartridge, better known as the 8-track. This cartridge used an analog magnetic tape and provided 90 minutes of continuous music play time.

8-track carved a niche for itself much before the advent of cassettes and CDs. And through the proliferation of vehicles, 8-track sales climbed to reach a peak revenue of $900 million in 1978.

Cassettes

The era of cassettes pushed 8-tracks into the history of music in the early 1980s. These pocket-sized tapes were more convenient to use than 8Tracks and quickly spread worldwide.

By 1989, the cassette format reached its peak revenues of $3.7 billion.

CDs

First released in 1982, the Compact Disc or CD came into the music market as the successor to the vinyl record.

Developed by Philips and Sony, sales of the sleek and portable CD grew quickly as home and car stereos alike added CD functionality. The format brought in $13.3 billion in revenue in both 1999 and 2000. To date, no other music format has reached the same milestone since.

Digital Music Formats

When it comes to preferred music formats over time, convenience (and cost) seem to have been the biggest catalysts of change.

From the start of the early 2000s, CDs had started to be replaced by other forms of digital storage and distribution. The massive shift to internet consumption and the introduction of digital music, available through downloads, pushed audio CD sales down rapidly.

The launch of streaming platforms like Spotify in 2006 exacerbated this decline, with CD sales dropping by around $4 billion in five years.

Digital sales continued to evolve. Ringtone sales alone brought in $1.1 billion in 2007, and in 2012, the revenues from downloads shot up to a peak of $2.9 billion. But music streaming platforms kept climbing through 2021, and will likely continue to be the future face of music consumption.

RankMusic formatsRevenue in 2021

1Streaming$11.5 billion

2Vinyl$1.0 billion

3CD$0.6 billion

4Downloads$0.5 billion

 Other$1.4 billion

 Total$15.1 billion

Music streaming and subscription services pushed the accessibility of music to new highs, especially with free ad-supported platforms.

In 2021, streaming secured the music industry a whopping $11.5 billion in sales, good for 76% of the total. If it keeps growing in popularity and accessibility, the format could potentially challenge the peak popularity of CDs in the late 90s.

The Vintage Comeback?

There’s no doubt that digital music formats are getting increasingly popular with every passing year. However, one of our vintage and beloved music formats—the vinyl record—seems to be making a comeback.

According to the RIAA database, the revenue earned by LP/EP sales has shot up to $1.0 billion in 2021, its highest total since the mid-1980s.

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