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World Music’s 2014 Album Sales Growth Outpaces Other Genres

A Q&A With Billboard Senior Analyst Glenn Peoples About Nielsen’s 2014 End-of-Year Report

ZenithTelescopeBecause world music recordings rarely top overall sales or airplay charts, few mainstream industry analyses explore what’s happening in the eclectic global category. Statistics company Nielsen Music’s 2014 year-end report, based on the Soundscan album sales data they collect, includes world music data. Dmitri Vietze, founder of world music and tech firm rock paper scissors, asked Billboard senior analyst Glenn Peoples – who travels regularly to Africa and Latin America on his time off – to help parse the data for globally minded producers, labels, and artists. 

Dmitri Vietze: I am wondering if you could help summarize some of the findings specifically for the world music field.

Glenn Peoples: Here’s what I know from 2014 sales figures, according to Nielsen Music. These sales numbers compare albums categorized by "core" genre classification. 

  • World music album sales rose 6.7% in 2014 in the U.S. The overall change in album sales was -11.2% (for all genres).
  • World music CD sales declined 6.6% in the U.S. The overall change in CD sales was -14.9%. 
  • World music digital album sales rose 23.2% in the U.S. The overall change in digital album sales was -9.4%.
  • The only other genre to experience gains was Vocal: overall up 35.1%, CDs up 30.7%, digital albums up 48.8%. (It should be noted that Vocal is not a core genre classification.)
  • However, Vocal sales were probably affected by the TV show, The Sing-Off
  • It does not appear that any single, or any few, world music titles skewed the genre’s sales in 2014. 

There are two ways of examining album sales by genre. One looks at albums by core categorization. The other looks at albums with other categorization (think of it as a secondary categorization). Albums with the other method of categorization of world music were up 17.4% last year. So that’s much higher than the other number I gave you.

Vietze: How did jazz, classical, and folk album sales fair in 2014? I wonder if other eclectic or less-pop genres (or genres that may skew to older buyers) are performing similarly to world music.

Peoples: Many, but not all, smaller genres also fared well. Jazz albums were down 6.5%. Classical was down 21.1%. Folk was down 16%. Comedy was up 4.6%. Broadway was up 3.2%. New Age was down 8%. Soundtracks were up 14.2% (probably because of Guardians of the Galaxy). 

Vietze: Have you ever seen any similar anomalies in the past that could not be explained by a single or handful of breakout releases?

Peoples: I don’t recall much. One thing that comes to mind is the relatively strong performances of soundtracks when digital download stores became popular. It makes sense: people watch a movie and can instantly download the soundtrack (which probably won’t be found in many brick-and-mortar retailers). 

Vietze: Did something shift with how albums are getting categorized as world music by Nielsen? (Or if you do not know, do you think this is a possible/likely change in this statistical anomaly?)

Peoples: Not that I know of. I doubt it. I don’t know of a retailer that started reporting to SoundScan in 2014 (it would have to be a retailer that was specific to world music since many other genres weren’t affected). Perhaps a large number of world artists started reporting merch table sales to SoundScan? It's a thought.

There's no reason to think artists are calling themselves world artists out of expectation of economic benefit. It's not a trending genre, in other words. In my experience, world music is not a categorization you want unless it’s definitely world music. It’s kind of a classification ghetto because it gets little traffic at stores and services. I used to see the same thing with dance music. The best way for a rock-dance-hybrid album to underperform is to have stores put it in the dance section rather than the rock section. The dance section -- like today's world section -- is trafficked by core fans, not tourists, so to speak. 

Vietze: Might this statistical anomaly be showing up for world music because of globalization of the recording industry? World music is a catchall for lots of genres of music worldwide and as the technical infrastructure of certain regions of the world is growing, could it simply be that the “supply” of world music is growing exponentially for this “genre” of recorded music?

Peoples: I don’t know, but it could be a combination of (a) greater access to recording/production tools that leads to (b) more releases that are (c) well marketed by artists and labels. But supply isn’t enough. There has to be something driving the demand. Would it be NPR? Could NPR be putting more emphasis on a number of world titles that ends up driving demand but in a small enough amount that no one or small number of titles is responsible for the uptick?

Vietze: Do you think “long tail discovery” through the Pandoras and Spotifys could be pushing world music album sales quietly but across the board? I am thinking music that is not hit making but is global in scope, could be getting discovered in this quieter roundabout way. Any validity there?

Peoples: Pandora could be having an impact, but I have two problems with that. First, Pandora has more of a direct result on track sales than album sales. Second, I don’t see a reason why a Pandora-related uptick would happen in 2014. Are world music fans slow to adopt Pandora? 

Spotify is less of a factor -- if either one is a factor. I doubt world artists are streamed much at on-demand services. The global nature of these artists could be driving the uptick. Friends across continents can share a track, and that could lead to discovery, which in turn results in album sales. But why the uptick in 2014?

We could ask the same questions of YouTube. I’m sure it’s an effective marketing tool, but why would there be an uptick in 2014? Did world labels and artists suddenly become better are utilizing YouTube, which, for many years, has been the world’s most popular streaming service?

Vietze: How would you expect an existing active world music artist to be affected by this growth in the genre overall? 

Peoples: Since we’re talking about an industry average, we shouldn’t talk about how any one artist is affected. I’m sure some albums over-performed and some underperformed. It depends on quality, marketing, promotion, etc. 

Vietze: If you had to guess the cause of growth in world music recording sales, what would you guess?

Peoples: A larger supply of well-marketed, mid-tier albums that sold well because artists and labels took advantage of the marketing and distribution opportunities -- and tools -- available to them. 

Vietze: Is there any data that demonstrate similar growth of world music gross revenue in streaming, interactive radio, and online video?

Peoples: Not that I know of. Or rather, not that I can get my hands on.

Vietze: What other resources should professionals in the world music recording field be looking into? 

Peoples: This is good reading: Next Big Sound’s “State of Music Report” ( 

One thing I noticed here is that world music artists have 4% of the total share of activity across social media and streaming platforms. That’s a good number. As a point of comparison, world music had a 0.6% share of album sales last year.  

And I should point out that reggae had 2%. So world and reggae (which SoundScan lumps together but Next Big Sound does not) had 6% of activity across social media and streaming platforms. 

There are a couple big asterisks, however: 

1. Next Big Sound data is global while SoundScan sales numbers are U.S.-only.
2. The two companies may or may not have the same genre categories for artists. I don’t know.


Glenn People’s music industry analysis can be followed on twitter at @billboardglenn and on the Billboard website on his Contributor Page. Dmitri Vietze is the founder of rock paper scissors (