It's a simple question — so simple, in fact, that it can be easy to overlook. Who, exactly, is buying music these days?
On the week ending Aug. 25, Billboard reported that the United States had gone through the worst sales week for music since at least 1991, when Nielsen's SoundScan first began tracking those figures. That week in August, during which Wiz Khalifa's Blacc Hollywood topped the chart with a mere 90,000 copies sold, just 3.97 million albums were purchased in America, down 19% from the same period the year before. Last year, album sales also hit a historic low.
Of course, it should come as a surprise to no one that music is scraping the bottom of the consumer shopping cart in 2014. More than a decade after illegal downloading first took the floor out from underneath the music industry, we've entered the era of the stream, when cheap server space means that all the music you can eat is never more than a click away. Even the inventors of Napster and iTunes, the two most important music downloading services of the last 15 years, have now concluded that the very concept of owning music is becoming a little passé.
And yet, music sales haven't hit zero. Somewhere shy of five million albums are still sold in America every week, despite what your Spotify- (or YouTube, or Soundcloud) obsessed friend may tell you — and that's not to mention genuine blockbusters like Beyoncé and the Frozen soundtrack. To shed some light on who still shells out for music in 2014 and how the profile of music consumers has changed over the years, we partnered with the music data and analytics firm MusicWatch to compare music consumption patterns today with that of 10 years ago. MusicWatch conducted online surveys of over 5,000 music buyers ages 13 and older in both 2004 and 2014. These were our findings.
1. Who buys CDs? The middle-aged.
Sixty-one percent of people who buy CDs are 36 and older, according to MusicWatch's estimate. Ten years ago, that figure was just 36%. Back in 2004, people over 50 made up just 19% of the CD-buying population, but today they're more than a third.
This could help explain the relatively high number of veteran artists who have notched their first career No. 1 albums in 2014, including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Black Keys, Sia, and Weird Al Yankovic.
2. Among music buyers in general, teenagers just aren't the force they used to be.
As a group, 13 to 17-year-olds have plummeted to a mere 7% of the CD-buying population, down from 14.9% in 2004. Their share of digital purchases, either singles or albums, is also down a healthy 12 percentage points — to just 13% — as downloading has become more mainstream among older demographics.
3. Digital downloading is no longer a male-dominated activity.
A majority of people who bought music digitally in 2014 were female (53%), according to MusicWatch's estimate — a big change from 2004, when 60% of digital purchasers were male.