There’s so much ‘noise’ coming out of the music industry sector, pun not intended, that it is still hard to discern what the trends are, but one seems to be becoming clearer by the day: the half-century long boom in long-format music, which has made the industry so profitable, is coming to an end. We’re going back to the days of the song.

A recent report from the UK-based telecoms and media analysts Enders Analysis on the state of the US CD market (corporate subscriptions only, but brief summary here) suggests that CD sales are down by 10% year on year in the first half of 2007. Download sales of albums, while growing rapidly, if from a small base, make up only 5% of the market. And music consumers have learnt to cherry pick the best tracks from a CD.

The industry, meanwhile, is talking about factors such as a weak release schedule and so on, always a clear sign of a business in denial. Enders suggests that the trends for the UK – the world’s third-largest market – are similar. This is slightly perplexing, since in real terms CDs are cheaper than they ever have been; conventional economics would suggest that sales should rise, not fall.

But it’s also worth noting that in markets increasingly dominated by the purchasing power of the supermarkets, conventional economics don’t apply. As the supermarkets cream off the top end sales by their discounting, casual buyers don’t go into record shops any longer. So their purchases are made elsewhere; as a result, record shops give over more space to other hard format products (DVDs, games etc) and the hard core CD purchaser finds them less attractive – because they have an increasingly small range in stock.

As in the bookshop business, this ‘supermarket effect’ is also closing down the independents; the only ones which can survive are increasingly those which are able to specialise. As fRoots editor Ian Anderson notes in an editorial of the August/September issue of the folk and roots music magazine, specialist buyers are buying as much hard format music as they ever did – but in the face of a poorer high street offer, are more likely to buy online. At the same time, though, I suspect that these hard core buyers are an aging cohort. (The collapse in June of the “slightly alternative” Fopp chain, since partially salvaged by HMV, may have been helped along by falling retail prices, but seems to have been more a classic case of a business over-expanding and running out of money).

Meanwhile, an interesting article in the current issue of Prospect by Robert Sandall, once a music industry executive, notes both the speed at which CDs have become a commodity – and how expensive tickets for live events have become:

Back in the 1980s, a seat at a concert by a superstar cost about the same as one CD album. By contrast, last summer you could have bought Madonna’s entire catalogue for less than half of what it cost to see her perform at Wembley Arena. The best seats in Madge’s house went for £160. With the Rolling Stones at Twickenham last August, a decent view would have set you back £150, or £350 for a seat on the side of the stage. To put this in historical perspective, when the Stones played Wembley in 1990, they took some stick for charging £25, top whack. Now that demand for live music is on the up, nobody bothers to complain about what it costs any more.

In this context, Prince’s decision to take a reported quarter of a million pounds to have his most recent CD on the cover of the Mail on Sunday, thus promoting his forthcoming concerts, seems inspired – even if he is able to do this because of the profile created by the marketing budgets formerly spent promoting him by record companies.

It’s easy to go over the record companies’ part in all of this. Their biggest mistake, in retrospect, was probably not ignoring the advent of digital music, but in imagining that the profits from the advent of the CD were permanent rather than fleeting. How often, after all, can consumers be persuaded to pay more for a product, and often one they already owned?

But there seems to me to be a deeper trend here. The notion of the long-playing record is a relatively recent phenomenon, effectively going back only half a century. Even when the technology was in place, it took the best part of fifteen years to develop the LP (‘long player’) as an artefact in its own right, rather than just a collection of tracks. “Pop LPs tended to be diffuse affairs in which one or two hits were surrounded by filler of varying quality”, wrote Geoffrey O’Brien in his music memoir Sonata for a Jukebox. “The 45 by contrast focussed attention unwaveringly on a solitary object of desire”.

And this reminds me of something which the maverick Mancunian music entrepreneur Tony Wilson wrote in 1999, at the height of the record industry onslaught on the free download sites such as Napster. Wilson, who died a few days ago, relatively young, was always ahead of the curve. In his short Guardian article, he linked the rise of digital downloads to the long history of the song, and of sheet music:

What did we use to sell, what was popular music for the first fifty years of this century, where did the phrase “Plugging” come from? Sheet music; sheet music – songs. We’re going back to the future and the power that will transform all is not some new tech fad or a revolutionary distribution system (which it is) but the very essence of our game, the song.

As Robert Sandall notes in his Prospect article, the private equity company which has just bought EMI has no interest in its record business. The asset which has enduring value is the publishing catalogue: the songs, and the electronic descendant of the sheet music business which spawned the record industry at the beginning of the 20th century.