On the one hand, there are the dollar figures, which in themselves are somewhat difficult to come to any reasonable grips with unless you are someone who spends their time being a quant, professionally or recreationally, and if you are one you look at this number and wish that you’d been calculatedly clever enough to have bought a piece of the action before the number dropped:
Which, in itself, doesn’t seem that big a deal until you look at it like this:
Which is a significant number of places after the dollar sign.
That, according to MusicBusiness Worldwide, is the Q1 cash generation of Sony for its recorded music and music publishing operations.
An increase of 9.7% over the same period last year.
But now as we move to the other hand, there is something that is truly odd, or at least a little bit unusual.
Here are the musicians who generated the greatest revenue and what got them there:
- SZA: SOS
- Miley Cyrus: Endless Summer Vacation
- Harry Styles: Harry’s House
- P!NK: TRUSTFALL
- Depeche Mode: Memento Mori
- Beyoncé: RENAISSANCE
- Måneskin: RUSH!
- Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol. 17: Fragments-Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996-1997)
- Michael Jackson: Thriller
- Harry Styles: Fine Line
The first thing that is atypical is the fact that Dylan is on the list. The week in October 2016 when Dylan received the Nobel Prize for Literature, Money magazine of all things had a story about Dylan’s chart performance. (Let’s face it: you can readily imagine Money writing about the likes of Ben Bernanke or Paul Krugman, Nobel economics laureates, but Literature? Dylan?)
The piece says, in part, “For all of Dylan’s acclaim and notoriety, and also for how phenomenally prolific ‘the voice of a generation’ has been. . .you might assume he is one of the best-selling artists of all time. Hardcore Dylan fans know that just isn’t the case.”
His sales numbers have not been in the least bit great, at least in the context of Big Selling Artists.
According to the RIAA’s “Certified Units: Gold, Platinum, Multi-Platinum, Diamond” listing of units, Dylan is number 46 on the list. He is just ahead of Def Leppard and just behind Tupac. Realize that Tupac’s career was from 1989 to 1996, while Dylan’s started in 1959 (which happens to be the year Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott was born).
So from the standpoint of his having contributed notably to the recent Sony financials in a quarter is particularly odd. . .although given that Sony had paid Dylan something on the order of $150,000,000 to $200,000,000 for his back pages catalog last year makes one think that perhaps Sony is doing a little extra to take advantage of Dylan’s work of days past.
Then to move on to the other surprise on the Sony list: Thriller?
Yes, it is the second-biggest selling album ever (again, using the RIAA: It has the Eagles’ Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 in first position, with certified sales of 38 million albums; the Fallen and Departed King of Pop is at 34 million).
But wouldn’t it seem likely that at some point in time there is a natural diminution of sales such that while it would continue to sell in some quantities, the nature of evolution would be such that the demand for the likes of SZA and Harry Styles would simply overwhelm an album that was released four decades ago?
However, all this may be predicated on music conglomerates needing to get while the getting is good because the generation that Dylan is the voice of is getting fairly croaky in its vocalizations and when it comes to big-selling albums, they simply don’t make them like they used to: the RIAA list goes on after Thriller to Hotel California (1976), Back in Black (1980), and Led Zeppelin IV (1971), so while someone like Taylor Swift may be racking up enormous numbers for equivalent units, the equivalence isn’t necessarily the same in revenues for the record companies.
Universal Music Group did even better in its 2023 Q1, with revenues of $2.62-billion (you can fill in the zeroes).
During the earnings call for UMG, Sir Lucian Grainge called out two aspects of what’s happening right now which has a consequence primarily on things like Universal Music Group but which he is trying to make more universally consequential
One is the number of tracks that are being distributed to music streaming services, which is on the order of 100,000 per day. Think of that: If each of those songs is 3 minutes long, that means 5,000 hours of music, or 208 days. So in a single week, there is the equivalent of four years of music being uploaded.
Clearly, if you’re running a music company that amount of competition, even if 99% of it is crap (still, that leaves 990 songs on a given day not being crap), is something that you don’t want.
The second thing is, of course, AI. Grainge said that this is not something that has become an issue just recently, but has been part of the uploads to the DSPs for some time, with an earlier algorithmic system, “technology that is not trained on copyrighted IP and that produces very poor-quality output with virtually no consumer appeal.”
Realize that “virtually no” isn’t the same as “no,” so based on the large numbers involved, even a little appealing music could have a consequence if not on the number of places to the left of the decimal point, at least the size of the numbers there.
Speaking of the oversupply of music that is being generated, in part, by AI, both the old and new versions, Grainge stated, “it’s simply bad, bad for artists, bad for fans, and bad for the platforms themselves.”
He, of course, didn’t mention that it is bad for UMG—not only is there the potential of it losing sales to a Fake [fill-in-the-blank], but then there are the legal fees that it would have to incur in order to protect its properties.
Speaking of bad, Michael Jackson’s follow-up to Thriller, Bad, is way down at number 74 on the RIAA’s list of biggest selling albums, just behind Mariah Carey’s Daydream and one ahead of N’Sync’s No Strings Attached.
Sales, certainly, at least from the standpoint of what we listen to, aren’t what matter, although I suspect Sir Grainge and his confrères would disagree with me.