2014’s Been A Mixed-up Year For Anyone Trying To Make Sense Of The Music Business

This year, over a million vinyl records were sold for the first time in the last two decades. Meanwhile, HMV posted a £17 million profit just a year after going into liquidation. In other news, up is down. Black is white. Cats and dogs are living together.

It’s been a mixed-up year for anyone trying to make sense of the music biz, and a nightmare for anyone trying to predict the future. Physical music sales were supposed to have been lifeless, yet in July HMV boss Paul McGowan called the business “very profitable” and claimed that it no longer has a single loss-making store in the UK.

Live music is booming, too. Total revenue from ticket sales well exceeds that from recorded music, yet the money is shared among a dwindling number of huge artists. While small venues like Leeds’ Cockpit and London’s Buffalo Bar closed, the O2 Arena in London sold more tickets in 2014 than any other indoor venue in the world. Ticket sales themselves are still blighted by touts, so Foo Fighters came up with a clever idea for their US dates: selling tickets to people queuing outside venues. That’s right, just like people did in the ’70s.

The return of vinyl records was arguably less of a surprise, particularly among music obsessives. The Horrors’ Rhys Webb recently told NME that the increase in sales reflects the fact that “people are rebelling against the invisible idea of streaming and downloads and embracing the physical release that makes vinyl records and everything about them so special”. It’s a nice idea, and true of many music fans, but let’s not count our records before they’re pressed. Nobody’s listening to vinyl on the bus or in their cars or while pounding the streets jogging. Digital music continues to dominate sales, and an increasing number of people simply aren’t buying music at all, relying solely on streaming for all their music needs.

Based on data from the first half of the year, digital sales of MP3s will continue to fall this year after peaking in 2012, when 1.3 billion tracks were sold in the US. Meanwhile, despite their well-publicised tiff with Taylor Swift (she withdrew her entire catalogue claiming that they weren’t valuing her art; they begged her to stay by quoting her own song lyrics), Spotify enjoyed another bumper year. Kevin Brown, head of label relations for Europe, told NME he believes: “2014 is the year streaming truly became mainstream”. He would say that, but the numbers are hard to argue with: Spotify has 50 million users worldwide, over 10 million of whom are paid subscribers, and they listened to over seven billion hours of music this year. Brown confidently predicts this will increase next year. At the same time, Google are ploughing resources into YouTube Music Key, a subscription service that will challenge Spotify.

It’s not just Taylor Swift who’s concerned. Kasabian’s Serge Pizzorno argues that streaming services are hurting new bands. He told NME: “Bands like us were able to play so many shows when we were starting out, gain a following, then get to a point where we could play big shows. The money that comes in from that keeps you afloat, but that’s not happening for new bands – especially if they’re getting stiffed on the records. That needs to be the debate, rather than what it means for bands like us. If we were starting out now, I don’t even know if we’d make it.”

Meanwhile, the spectre of illegal downloading hasn’t gone away. Last week came news that The Pirate Bay – one of the most popular illegal download sites – has been raided by Swedish police and taken offline. In September, however, Thom Yorke allied with BitTorrent – formerly best known for filesharing and piracy, now legal – to release his ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ in a paid-for bundle. Yorke described it as an experiment. BitTorrent boss Matt Mason told NME the now-legit company plans to seize an opportunity created because the music business has given up on selling music. But it remains the case that if people can avoid paying for stuff they invariably will. The exception to this rule is obviously a U2 album, which 95 per cent of iTunes users made vocally clear they would rather have forcibly inserted into their rectums on eight-track cassette than have it magically appear as a free download on their iPhone.

The furious reaction to U2’s giveaway points to the same central truth that rising vinyl sales does: for those of us who love music, we still want our music collection to somehow represent us as individuals. We want our record collections to reflect our idiosyncratic tastes and choices, whether or not we actually own any records. This feeling of ownership should, in theory, give paid-for music an advantage over the endless forevers of Spotify, which is exactly the reason they provide countless options for playlisting and favouriting music. They want to create the illusion that you ‘own’ your little corner of the cloud. There’s even nostalgia for the simpler early days of MP3s – when Apple announced it is to discontinue the storage-focused iPod classic, demand for the last of the devices skyrocketed.

As for what 2015 holds? Who knows. As a wise man once said: I never make predictions, and I never will.