Great piece on record-company problems

... in Rolling Stone.

Overall CD sales have plummeted sixteen percent for the year so far -- and that's after seven years of near-constant erosion. In the face of widespread piracy, consumers' growing preference for low-profit-margin digital singles over albums, and other woes, the record business has plunged into a historic decline.

In 2000, U.S. consumers bought 785.1 million albums; last year, they bought 588.2 million (a figure that includes both CDs and downloaded albums), according to Nielsen SoundScan. In 2000, the ten top-selling albums in the U.S. sold a combined 60 million copies; in 2006, the top ten sold just 25 million. Digital sales are growing -- fans bought 582 million digital singles last year, up sixty-five percent from 2005, and purchased $600 million worth of ringtones -- but the new revenue sources aren't making up for the shortfall.

More than 5,000 record-company employees have been laid off since 2000. The number of major labels dropped from five to four when Sony Music Entertainment and BMG Entertainment merged in 2004 -- and two of the remaining companies, EMI and Warner, have flirted with their own merger for years.

More record executives now seem to understand that their problems are structural: The Internet appears to be the most consequential technological shift for the business of selling music since the 1920s, when phonograph records replaced sheet music as the industry's profit center.

Record companies face many of the same problems as the print-news business, and show many of the same symptoms. There is no easy solution, and whatever solution is found almost surely will involve smaller profits. I agree with Big Picture's Barry Ritholtz, however, that record companies really, really need to cut prices on their back catalog. It's crazy to be charging $15 for Rolling Stones and Temptations albums that haven't charted in 40 years. Cutting prices would move merchandise and generate revenue.

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