Even Beyonce and Justin Timberlake Can’t Save the Music Biz
Business + Economy

Even Beyonce and Justin Timberlake Can’t Save the Music Biz


You’d be forgiven for thinking that 2013 was a big year for music.

  • Miley Cyrus, with her attention-seeking VMA performance, was rivaled only by the Royal Couple and Edward Snowden for buzz.
  • Justin Timberlake dropped his first album in half a decade, with “The 20/20 Experience” proving that he can still turn out likable late-night hipster pop.
  • Robin Thicke finally shook off the shackles of his sitcom father to ride a Marvin Gaye hook and an NSFW video to song-of-the-summer status.
  • Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” became an instant party staple (with a little added help from Stephen Colbert).
  • And the current Queen of Pop, Beyoncé surprised everyone with an out-of-nowhere end-of-the-year iTunes release that proved to be an instant hit – just like her surprise visit to Walmart.

A closer look at the final 2013 numbers, though, reveals that while the industry has done an exceptional job of marketing itself as still hip and relevant, actual sales continue to plummet.

Related: The Short Dramatic Life of Apple’s iTunes Music Store

On the one hand, Timberlake can regard 2013 as a successful year. Despite a lengthy hiatus, his forays into acting, and his transition into his 30’s, JT proved that he can still deliver the goods and that he still has an audience. His album sold 2.43 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, making it the biggest hit of the year. But on the other, the sales figure represents the lowest total a year-end chart topper has had since Nielsen began reporting these retail numbers in 1991. And Timberlake’s was the only album to break the 2 million mark in 2013.

For point of reference, the previous year’s chart topper, Adele’s “21,” sold 4.41 million copies. (And should you need further proof that the creative juices are running dry, “21” was also the biggest selling album of 2011 with 5.82 million copies sold.)

The overall sales record further paints a picture of a culture whose relationship to music is changing.  Total album sales dropped 8 percent, from 316 million to 289.4 million. Even digital downloads experienced a decline in sales for the first time.

And that overall picture would have been even worse without the late and unexpected arrival of Beyoncé’s self-titled album. The album, which has topped the Billboard 200 for three straight weeks, sold 1.3 million copies in the last 17 days of 2013 and proved that there is still a little muscle in star power. But even this silver lining comes attached to a gray cloud.

According to Musicmetric, “Beyoncé” was shared over 240,000 times via Bit Torrent in its first week, resulting an estimated loss of around $3 million. Additionally, the interest in her back catalog resulted in her entire discography being shared via Bit Torrent more than 2 million times in 2013.

All of this reinforces the bigger picture of a music audience that has been asking the same question for nearly two decades: “Why should we pay inflated prices for music when there are so many ways to get it for free?”

The biggest problem is that the music industry has been issuing the same answer for those two decades: “We don’t know, buy more CDs!”

Top 10 Albums of 2013 (By Sales)
Album Artist Sales
The 20/20 Experience Justin Timberlake 2.43 million
The Marshall Mathers LP 2 Eminem 1.73 million
Crash My Party Luke Bryan 1.52 million
Night Visions Imagine Dragons 1.4 million
Unorthodox Jukebox Bruno Mars 1.4 million
Here's to the Good Times Florida Georgia Line 1.35 million
Nothing was the Same Drake 1.34 million
Beyonce Beyonce 1.3 million
Based on a True Story... Blake Shelton 1.11 million
Magna Carta... Holy Grail Jay Z 1.1 million
Source: Nielsen Soundscan