You’d think everyone who wants to listen to Queen’s Greatest Hits already owns a copy of the album. But here, you’d be wrong.

As of two weeks ago, old albums outsold new ones for the first time since Nielsen Soundscan started tracking U.S. album sales, back in 1991. The first half of 2012 brought sales of 76.6 million catalog albums (i.e, albums released more than 18 months ago) as opposed 73.9 million current albums. Some of the best-selling catalog albums are fairly recent beasts that won’t go away (Adele’s 19, Taylor Swift’s Speak Now); some are ancient classics that should be carved into Mount Rushmore (Dark Side Of The Moon, Licensed To Ill).

According to Nielsen analyst David Bakula, the primary catalyst for the trend is cost: Catalog albums are usually priced between $5.99 and $10.99, while new albums are often $13-$18. “I really, truly do believe that there probably is a consumer that is buying music here that wasn’t buying music in the past,” Bakula told the OC Weekly.

But surely there are other reasons, things that depress the sales of new albums more than they inflate the appeal of old albums — including everything from streaming services to the effects of the Long Tail to the overlap in demographics between file-sharers and fans of new music. Right? Plus, y’know, the fact that there’s a longstanding bias (masked as “traditional wisdom”) suggesting old music is simply better than new music.

So what is it? Do you buy new albums? Old albums? Would you buy more new albums if they cost less? Is cost even a factor? Are you buying any music at all, old or new, or what?

Comments (40)
  1. Hm. That is strange to me. Only because I buy all old records/cds used or on half.com, and I can’t imagine that those sales are being cataloged. Dark side of the moon there is only 1.33 before media mail shipping…….

    The only music I buy new is the new stuff because it is harder to pirate and I genuinely want to support the bands/smaller labels.

  2. Obviously because old people don’t know how to pirate music and new people do. So what type of music do older people buy?

    • By new I mean young…

      • You sir, are right! …except I think – in Denmark, at least – more people stream it than download it! I am one of a select few in my social networks that DO buy music, but I care more for music than most of my friends – they rather stream.

        Dads do, however, buy CD’s because their cars won’t play that old LP edition of Dark Side of the Moon they have from when it was made… and they wouldn’t know how to download it, either.

  3. I really do think it’s mostly a demographic thing. Younger people are not buying albums much these days. Why would they when they have stuff like Spotify and good, old-fashioned piracy?

  4. I buy music from Amazon’s MP3 Store. They usually have great deals for old and new music.

  5. Ever since people have been abandoning MySpace, no one knows how to find new music. Come back! Please….

  6. Im not even kidding when I say I JUST put on the original vinyl pressing of Dark Side Of The Moon 15 minutes ago. I’m currently switching over to side two right after I type this. Scurry!

    • My friends and I once did the thing where you play Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz. We were creeped out and amazed by the coincidences. After the album ended, we kept the movie going and the CD changer switched to Sheryl Crow’s “Run Baby Run” just as the scarecrow started running. Then we laughed until we got the munchies.

  7. I buy new music only on CD.

    In fact, I’ve recently regressed back to primarily buying CDs. I used to buy CDs up until about 5 years ago when my eMusic subscruption addiction and then a couple years later Amazon MP3s represented the majority of the music I purchased.

    Then this last fall I got a really nice set of musician monitor type ear-buds and I could physically hear a difference between 192k MP3s and FLAC. Prior to that point, I was ok with buying music through Amazon and eMusic because full albums cost less than the CDs. I could never bring myself to buy an album from iTunes (only singles I couldn’t obtain elsewhere) because you are paying the same price as CD but for a sonically inferior product. At least with a record store you know your money is going to a distributor and a store and there is justification for a $10-12 CD (knowing the store makes a couple of bucks and the disti makes a couple before the record label and band getting theirs).

    Paying $10 for an album that is compressed and sits on their server and there are no people really doing any work but collect 30% seems wack. I know people are lazy and like convenience but as a music fan, I prefer hearing more of the music.

    Now before we get into the whole CD vs. DVD-audio vs. Vinyl discussion (I do buy all my favorite albums in both CD and vinyl), CDs just sound better than acc or MP3 files.

    Personally, having booked tours for bands and been involved in the music scene, I can say I can not and will not support Spotify. Their streams sound like crap (160k MP3 equivalence) and their isn’t a model where smaller acts can make enough money to justify continuing to make music.

    So where does that leave me? I buy as much as I can in FLAC (which is at least the same sound quality as the CD) from Bandcamp and Boomkat (yes, I know I have to pay exchange rates) and the rest in CD format. Those albums I find myself listening a ton, I buy in vinyl as well. But I’m not buying old records.

    I honestly, bandcamp is the ideal place to buy music. Artists themselves upload the music and can get paid almost directly. Plus there are multiple formats available.

    There you go. Straight from a music store junkie.

    • My brother from another mother…

    • I’m no audiophile, but I have to say the sound I get streaming Spotify via the mobile app in my car is so much better than that of the mp3′s on my ipod I have stopped purchasing music altogether and upgraded my Spotify membership to premium. It’s that much of a difference. There may be mitigating reasons for this, but most of my mp3s are sourced from itunes, emusic, amazon or rips from cd’s.

  8. It’s worth mentioning that the number of old albums and number of new albums are incomparable. I’m a young listener discovering things at random, and I buy a hell of a lot of new music–in fact, I make a major point of being biased towards it–but considering the fact that this past year I also discovered the Replacements, Richard Youngs, Elvis Costello, and bought most of the Mountain Goats’ back catalog, I can’t say that I definitely bought more new music than old.

    • What I’m saying is, I’m sure people buy more old books than new too. Pop music’s history is lengthening while its present (obviously) isn’t.

  9. I prefer to buy my music on CD. I have Spotify so the whole MP3/I-Pod thing is kinda taken care of there. With my cd collection I just rip everything to my i-pod when I can’t get signal for Spotify or something. Amazon has unreal deals on older catalog deals. You can go on Amazon right now and get like 12 Rush records that are $4.99 each. How can you beat that?

  10. “old music is simply better than new music.”

  11. I’ll torrent all my music first. When I really like what I hear, I will go and purchase the album (normally on iTines) and the vinyl, if available (normally on Amazon). Basically, the only reason I would buy any new music is to support the artist. Doesn’t matter how big they are. If I genuinely like what they do – they get my money. But mostly, i will support the artists I like by going ot see them live and maybe buying some merch. Also, i will purchase a single and (in rare cases – full albums) when i REALLY want to keep listeting to a song and I’m a in a place where I cannot dL and transfer to my phone right away.

    • Amen. I don’t get any of my music illegally, but I use streaming services that I pay for monthly (I use Zune…so it’s like Spotify and iTunes combined), despite the fact none of that money really goes to artists. Like you, If I really love an artist and I want them to keep making music like that, I’ll pay for it (I normally buy CD’s).

    • support your local record stores, they’ll order for you and that can give you an excuse to go in and look around…. if you’re downloading torrents then you can afford to wait until they get it in for you. show some love. you can also support if you watch who you buy from, some have accounts on Amazon and you can use Discogs.com as well usually paying with PayPal.

  12. Oh yeah – and as far as buying old music – I’ll only pay for vinyl. All classics I have on my “electronic devices” are … torrented.

  13. Dear This Thread,

    I don’t care that you buy CDs.

    Sincerely, Me.

    P.S. I think this rises in catalogue sales really has to do with price. When I go onto iTunes, the drastic difference in price is pretty enticing. Plus, it’s worth considering that a lot of older people are still making the switch to digital, and are once again going through the process of re-buying everything they owned, first on vinyl, then on CD. This seems especially plausible after The Beatles were finally added to iTunes last year; that was a watershed moment for a lot of boomers.

  14. This is a genuinely fascinating piece of news. My guess at to the cause of this shift:

    1) As people have already mentioned, music sales are predominantly the realm nowadays of older folks, who aren’t familiar with torrents or streaming services. It’s why artists who are legends (Bruce Springsteen) or who emulate the style/sound of legends (Adele) absolutely dominate the charts, even though they may get only a fraction of the press that hipper, more progressive acts get.

    2) Modern music is frequently created, marketed and fawned over specifically because of its transient, disposable nature. People are less concerned with building music libraries and more interested in just keeping up with the near-biblical deluge of new stuff that gets thrust upon them on a daily basis. Remaining “part of the conversation” is fundamentally incompatible with engaging music on a deeper (read: slower) level. Music has always been about identity politics, but today it doesn’t have time to be anything BUT identity politics, which strips away any real archival purpose or value.

    3) Simply put, the last few 5 or 6 decades have produced a shitton of music. It’s always asked “Who DOESN’T already own _______”, but the answer is “The vast majority of people”. Aside from the fact that we’re still sifting through music made before any of us were even born, even the most “pop standard” records are still unheard/owned by the vast majority of people, especially the youth. There are always going to be new generations of 13 year olds looking to engage more intimately with the world and turning to The Ramones, or Bob Marley, or Run DMC to do it. There are always going to be parents looking to introduce their kids to “real” music via The Beatles, or Dylan, or Earth Wind & Fire.

    In a way, I would love for there to be just a “Year Without Media”, where no new music/movies/television/books/comics/video games etc. were produced, and all people could do is take a breath and begin sifting through the impossible backlog of stuff our culture has piled up in the last half century. Give all the professional artists a modest salary to just take the year off, let them recharge their own batteries, get off of the grind of working without respite just to keep the lights on. I promise you that we would come out of it a calmer, more sane, more thoughtful society, even if just for a bit.

  15. I buy music on vinyl. CDs have become more or less obsolete with Mp3s (and FLAC for audiophiles)….and as far as collecting goes, vinyl is prettier. Aside from any supposed advantages to audio quality, vinyl is simply more collectible.

  16. Maybe if X103, my area’s “True Rock Alternative,” had been playing Mastodon, Kylesa, and Baroness (including the new album of course, which absolutely slays) instead of 3DoorsGraceSeethelle for the past decade this wouldn’t be happening.

  17. i would buy albums if they were cheaper. e.g., i just bought roy orbison’s greatest hits. its good but why the fuck would i buy that – $5.99, that’s why

    here in kanada its pretty hard to justify a $15 hoe when i can get it off da bay for free. i don’t give a fux because johnny law too busy chasin polar bears n shit


  18. As I said in a couple of other posts, I work at a CD store part time. There is a generation gap somewhat, but I hate to tell ya, it is no myth that older classic stuff is much better than what we have today. Most of the baby boomers and a large percentage of generation x’s do not even buy music anymore. When I see someone younger buying several older titles I usually ask them what led them to buy them. Most of the time it’s music they grew up hearing their parents play or by just being turned on to it by friends and the web. As far as price goes, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Led Zepp catalogs are rarely on sale. Our cost at the store for those titles is at least as much as newer releases.
    One thing that stands out also is that MP3′s still sound like crap. Until they perfect that, people are still going to buy CD’s & Vinyl.

  19. I just recently bought a whole pile of older albums, including Queen, Tom Petty, Boston, Jellyfish, The Doors…. I am more likely to buy hard copies of the classics that I know I will love forever and always treasure, as opposed to some new band that I may not ever listen to more than a few times before they drive me insane. I am an audiophile though, so I will usually make impulse purchases on iTunes for something I really want, but if I love it, I will also buy it in CD form for better sound quality.

  20. So…for one six-month period, CD’s that are 18 months or older marginally outsold newer albums, in an undisclosed format? I must call my mother.

  21. i blame the fact that so many people have left MySpace… they don’t know where to find new music anymore

  22. In scandinavia, home of Spotify, most people stream music to pc or phone. Me personally, i’m one of the rare few that Buy, stream AND pirate music. i would first stream new music, and proabably after deducing that it’s shit, not go much further. I find myself buying some “catalogue” items, cd’s that are used, out of print in the format anymore, and re-master/expanded type things. i’ll also normally buy vinyl at a concert or from a new artist, because they come with download cards, and the actual value of the vinyl won’t depreciate as much. should i decide to swap it, or hang on to it. I’m kinda weird though..smetimes i prefer the “un” remastered versions of albums. example: my bloody valentine. i actually dig the original, less compressed sounding version the best. it’s the most authentic, but some remasters i think actually improve the listening experience..i.e., Bob dylan mono, Beatles catalogue, etc.

  23. So old people are going out in force and buying old albums? It’s possible I guess.

  24. I still listen to music that I grew up with, which is punk rock and heavy metal.

  25. What are the numbers of older albums being streamed compared to newer albums being streamed…?

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