Rock fails to burst the pop bubble in 2010

The two most popular music genres in terms of retail sales last year were pop and rock. According to the annual genre study by Music & Copyright, retail sales of pop music stood at US$7.3 billion in 2010, while retail sales of rock music totaled US$6.2 billion. Pop sales had a better year than rock, falling by just 3% compared with rock’s decline of 6.6%. However, sales of jazz, classical and other smaller genres fared worse last year.

The discussions surrounding recorded-music sales and what to do to solve the decline in recent years has often dealt with recorded music as a single entity. There is also a commonly held assumption that all the musical genres and subgenres have suffered in equal measure. Music & Copyright’s latest analysis of the retail sales of the different music genres has found this not to be the case.

The classification of music into a single genre is fairly subjective and often differs between record company, music retailer and national trade association. Categorizing music within a genre can have multiple influencing factors, such as musical technique, style, context, target audience and geographical origin. Moreover, many genres have subgenres that can overlap others. To calculate genre sales figures, Music & Copyright has limited itself to the most commonly used genre categories by most national trade associations.

In terms of revenue share, pop increased its share of total global music-retail sales last year to 30.1% from 29.2% in 2009. Rock took a 25.5% share. With much of the mainstream media focusing on the main music genres, it is perhaps unsurprising that their share of sales has remained high. However, retail sales of some of the smaller genres, such as classical and jazz have declined significantly faster than the global average. This could be due to the lack of exposure coupled with the concentration by music retailers on the most popular genres. Another factor is the reduction in floor space by brick-and-mortar retailers of the slow-selling, low-margin genres. Most music retailers have seen large sales declines and so have replaced the more niche music genres with better-selling items, such as DVDs, video games and consumer electronics.

The transition to digital and away from CDs could be having a negative effect on the retail sales of the more-niche genres. For example, classical music is available online, but this on its own is not enough to secure sales. Except for searches for specific titles, browsing for classical music can be more restrictive online than in a physical store, because a consumer can see only what is displayed on his monitor at any one time. If digital-music services do not have helpful links, charts, submenus and subgenres, freely browsing a genre without significant background knowledge is almost impossible.

Although some genres that are more popular in a limited number of countries are included in this analysis, some are not. Country music, for example, is included, because it is more popular in the world’s biggest market, the US. The number of country-focused radio stations outnumbers most other genre-based stations. Because of this, a large number of country tracks figure in the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, which is based on airplay rather than sales. However, in terms of retail sales, the genre accounts for about 14% in the US, compared with more than 31% for rock. Even so, despite much-lower retail sales of country music elsewhere in the world, the high level in the US resulted in a global share of 6.2% in 2010.

In contrast, religious and Latin genres – such as Musica Popular Brasileira, which itself incorporate subgenres such as samba and samba-cancao – sell well in many Latin American countries. But because Latin American countries account for a much lower share of global retail sales, these genres have been grouped as part of “other.”

Music & Copyright is a fortnightly research service published by Informa Telecoms & Media.