It’s cool to be British again, apparently. UK artists have increased their share of worldwide music sales, with acts like One Direction, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, Sam Smith and even veterans Pink Floyd all making it into the world’s top 10 bestsellers.
The result, according to trade body the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), is that British artists accounted for 13.7% of global music sales, up from 13% last year and 11.8% in 2011. That’s a decent share of a chunky pie, amounting to approximately $2.8bn (£1.8bn) last year.
As down-with-the-kids business secretary Sajid Javid puts it, ‘the popularity of British music at home and abroad is, appropriately, only going in "One Direction".’ Feel free to cringe whenever you want.
This may sound great, but it’s not an entirely upbeat story. Our share of the pie may be growing but the pie itself is still shrinking. The internet era hasn’t been kind to the music business, as consumers got out of the habit of actually paying for songs over the last 15 years.
Between 2003 and 2013, sales of music in physical formats (CDs, DVDs and vinyl) in the UK fell a staggering 70% to £365m. Online and streaming formats grew from nothing to a £361m business, but that was still nothing like enough to compensate for the decline in CDs.
The decline continues, but there are signs that it’s starting to slow. CD Album sales fell 7.9% last year, compared to 12.8% the year before and 19.5% in 2012. Meanwhile, vinyl is experiencing something of a renaissance with LP sales at a 20-year high of 1.3m in 2014.
‘Record collection, on LP or CD, may be more resilient than expected as a complement for some fans to the immediacy and convenience of streaming,’ said BPI boss Geoff Taylor.
Streaming is so convenient and immediate that it’s helped to fend off the assault of illegal downloading. It may be the saviour of the music industry in that sense, but it hasn’t brought back the halcyon days of the 90s (halcyon for the business of course – consumers probably don’t miss £19.99 albums). Most streaming is funded by adverts, which pay a fraction of what labels used to earn.
Again, there are positive signs. The number of plays doubled between 2013 and 2014 to 14.8 billion in the UK. Research from Kantar WorldPanel indicated that more than a quarter of adults (26.8%) used a streaming service like Spotify or Google Play last year, roughly a quarter of those using a paid service for at least part of the year.
Could this mean overall revenues may actually start to level off?
‘Streaming has the potential to drive significant growth in industry revenues in the coming years provided the right balance is found between advertising-funded free streaming, which presently generates only modest revenues on its own, and migration to full-featured, premium subscription services,’ said Taylor.
The long decline may be coming to an end, but for British artists, topping the charts worldwide will never mean what it used to. In that sense, as in so many others, One Direction can never emulate the Beatles.