Going Digital: 31 Years Of Format Changes In The Music Industry

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Somehow we missed this chart when Digital Music News posted it last week, but luckily Fast Company‘s Co.Design blog noticed, and shared it today. As Co.Design’s Cliff Kuang put it, “It doesn’t happen too often, but once in a blue moon a hideous chart contains such a novel conceit that we have to post it.”

So what are we looking at? Not “the music industry’s death,” as the Co.Design headline proclaims. In fact, this animation contains no information about total sales. Digital Music News simply took screenshots of the pie charts with which the Recording Industry Association of America represents its data (see this slide). This explains why the size of the pie fluctuates despite no corresponding data point (and why the occasional data point is out of frame).

Despite these interpretation-hindrances, we are sort of fascinated by the way in which the chart models the formats through which consumers purchase music: the cassette’s rise to plurality (and, briefly, slight majority) and very slow recession from market share; the CD’s complete domination (95.5% of the market share in 2002!) and swift downfall; the intransigence of the LP in the last twenty years; the rise not only of digital downloads, but also of other ways of monetizing music in the digital age (such as subscription services, which may get a bump in 2011 thanks to the launch of Spotify and other developments); and the comparative popularity of the paid single download vs. any physical single format (from 1980 onwards, physical singles commanded less than 8% of the market, but in the six years that digital downloads have been widely available for sale, they have grown to command 20% of the market). All that, and a somewhat effective use of a pie chart!