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.