Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

Infographic Of The Day: An Animated GIF Of The Music Industry's Death

An astonishing animated chart that summarizes the shift between LPs, cassettes, CDs, and MP3s.

It doesn't happen too often, but once in a blue moon a hideous chart contains such a novel conceit that we have to post it. For example: This phenomenal little animated gif of music industry sales over the last 30 years.

The series of pie charts shows the sales of various music formats: Thus, you can see cassettes begin devouring the LP, and then CDs devouring cassettes, and then, of course, downloadable MP3s decimating CD sales:

" />

Obviously, the contours of this narrative are pretty familiar. But what I find fascinating is how inevitable this narrative seems, once you see it in this particular data-viz format. You see plenty of line and bar charts showing this exact same set of data. They don't move you.

But somehow, just the simple fact of stringing all these pie charts together tells you about the nature of music-format innovation. Here, the industry's change appears inevitable, and the only surprising thing about it is how long the CD enjoyed a period of utter and total dominance. The CD ruled for far longer than most formats — and with extremely high margins, due to cheap production costs — but it was always doomed to be overturned.

Put another way: If you were a music executive sitting in a presentation 10 years ago and you'd been presented this chart, would you have any doubt that your CD business was going to die? Moreover, wouldn't you have seen that in a historical context, the invention of the CD was an effervescent bit of luck? This ugly, animated gif carries a force that you can't summon in a static line chart.

All of that is simply a testament to the immense power that the right chart at the right time can wield. But for now, it's interesting to note how fractured the landscape is, at the point where the gif ends. Downloadable singles dominate the share of downloadable music — but most sales still exist in physical formats. (Granted, most music these days is probably being stolen.) Seeing this, it's hard not to wonder: What's going to be after the MP3? You've got to think that the Internet will be the mode of exchange for decades and decades to come — and that downloadable files will be MP3s or some newer, higher-resolution replacement. But the gaping thing this gif doesn't quite get to is the fact that all this assumes that people need to own their music. As Spotify and even Pandora have shown, that might be the case at all—and the next music-format revolution might not be too far away.

[Via Digital Music News; Top image by Nina Matthews]

Add New Comment


  • The Digital delivery system has changed the music business forever. Any artist can compete in the music industry if they just pay attention to the delivery trends of the medium. Music will always be needed and distributed no matter the form of transportation.

  • Tmccool

    The most telling part of your posting is about CDs "extremely high margins." The music industry got addicted to those margins, and could not get the same margins out of digital downloads. 99 cents is still too high for a song. It should be 49 cents, or even 25 cents.

  • Not Moses

    Look at YouTube & DailyMotion. Music is not rented, it is given away. But increasingly, the availability of the giveaway is sponsored by one or more commercial advertisers, just as it has been in radio for 90 years.  

  • Travis McClain

    I'd be interested to see concert sales included.  It's true those revenues do not go to the record labels, but they're clearly a vital part of the music industry and I think a more holistic view would be helpful.  Consider an artist like Bruce Springsteen, if you will.  By now, most of his album sales are to longtime fans and his current and future stuff can't be expected to sell like the old stuff once did.  Yet, his tours are well attended and lucrative so does it mean as much for him that his next album won't likely sell any better than his last one?

    Another question I might ask is, how many artists/groups are reflected in the data?  That is, the Internet has opened up accessibility in ways that commercial radio and big box retailers couldn't--or wouldn't.  It's easier for older artists to remain connected with their fan base after the programming executives decide they need to be put out to pasture and it's easier for the newcomers to gain visibility without the support of a major label.

    The reason I think this might matter is that it may offer a parallel narrative to this data.  That is, the evolution of music distribution may mean less revenue for the labels, but perhaps it means more exposure and chance for success for artists.  It is a commercial art form, and we too often see analysis that focuses exclusively on the commercial and ignores the art.  I much prefer today's distribution, where I'm not reliant on a programming director or a sales floor set-up designer to cherry-pick what's brought to my attention.

  • robertuppsala

    A very nice GIF indeed! but I am missing the "size of the cake. How large is the music industry money wise now compared to 20years ago? And we need to take into account all the new ways of revenues that flow into music and the number of artists this cake actually supports now.

  • Random Guest

    It doesn't show the death of the music industry but rather the evolution of audio media.
    Technology doesn't stand still so there will always be improvements in some kind of way. Be it audio quality or easy of handling or even just the way of procurement.

  • Independentcontractorareus

    the next music-format revolution might not be too far away. Music is sounds
    in all formats.. from records to mp3's what sounds good to ear.. is objective...
    for the sells... thats on the stores; but I do... think we have more; A cd is a way of holding musical files... The CD will be there like the record....

  • bob

    Interesting to see the media shift displayed this way.

    I absolutely love that the poor execution of the chart reflects that of compressed file formats. It as if the "life" was squeezed right out of it...just like MP3s, 4s, AAC, "Lossless", etc.

    The single download format is the only reason Apple was able to beat the record execs at their own game. Consumers grew tired of buying a $20 CD with one "good" song on it. Who knew we'd be so complacent as to accept formats that sound like they're coming from a child's toy radio being played  at the end of a very long hallway?

    It's a shame that the DVD-Audio, Blu-Ray format war lasted as long as it did. There could have been a brilliant future there. When it ended and Blu-Ray won, it was DOA due to streaming content. Quality be damned.
    Time to go fire up some dead format on the tubed Shanling and Gemme Audio Tantos IIs  for some sonic bliss. Enjoy your iPod.

  • diana

    I really appreciate this .gif and the impact of the 'sloppy execution'. Maybe that was its/on purpose, maybe not. Thanks!

  • doug carter

    It tells a story, great, but not only does the pie chart and years move
    around completely but if you want to see any of the numbers, it doesn't
    hold on one year long enough to read anything. The type is too small to
    recognize what each section in, as well, and combined with the speed,
    the story is virtually lost because of clarity issues. This chart
    explains the point, but if you can't read it clearly, the viewer will
    not get the message properly. There would have been a better way to do
    this and make it 100% more functional, and even more attractive... nice
    idea, sloppy execution.

    And how does it show the "death of the music industry" at all?

  • Kevin Ebaugh

    Awesome article, naive headline. How does that illustrate the "death" of the music industry?”