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Changing listening habits

by Merja Hottinen

The music trade has long been overshadowed by falling sales. There have, however, been some signs of recovery in the past couple of years, due mainly to the growing supply of streaming services. Listening habits and preferences are also changing.

Sales of recorded music in Finland showed an upward trend in 2012, for the first time in many years. Though the increase on the previous year was still not very remarkable, and it then slightly levelled off, the signal is nevertheless clear. For it reinforces the belief that people still want to listen to music, and that the recording business may once again be discovering a new revenue logic.

Particularly interesting is what the statistics tell us about today’s changing musical and listening habits. Many of the signs reinforce what we can see for ourselves: the digitally-literate youngsters have no difficulty accessing clouds for their music, while the older generations still treasure their record collections and car stereos. But is the new technology also changing what we listen to and are offered? What sort of musical culture are these new recording formats creating?


Some numbers

In 2013, wholesale revenue on recorded music totalled €41.8 million. This was a slight drop on the turning-point year 2012, but the considerable rise in digital sales was a positive sign. Digital services were already accounting for just over a quarter of sales of recorded music in 2012; in 2013 they represented as much as 36 per cent.

The fundamental reason for this growth lies in streaming, sales of which rose no less than 41 per cent in 2013.

The figures for Finland reflect the international market trend. The latest “Recording Industry in Numbers” report shows that, worldwide, sales of recorded music grew in 2012 for the first time since 1999. The global increase in digital sales was 8 per cent. This means that Finland is slightly ahead of the international average in digitalised listening. Yet we still lag far behind Sweden, leader of the digital market. The homeland of Spotify, the streaming service established in 2008, has shown how listeners can be taught to use digital services. The Swedes and Norwegians annually spend 3–4 times more on digital music than do the Finns, who each fork out a mere €2.75 or so. The engine for the growth is streaming, which in the Nordic countries at least is clearly growing faster than downloading or other digital sales. The most recent statistics for Finland even show a downward turn in sales of music downloads for the second year in succession.

It must, however, be remembered that despite the growth in demand for digital music, the bulk of the market is still dominated by physical recordings. In other words, the physical record has not deteriorated in value. The LP, for example, has even enjoyed a rise in prestige, showing an increase in sales of 52 per cent on 2012.


What do the Finns want to hear?

In 2013, sales of domestic recorded music accounted for 70 per cent of the Finnish total. This is an exceptionally high figure. The appeal of Finnish music is also reflected in the record charts. In 2012, for example, there was only one foreign album in the yearly Top 10: Adele’s 21, which topped the international sales statistics.

So what did the Finns buy? Among the firm favourites have been the albums produced as spin-offs to Vain elämää, the Finnish version of the “Best Singers” TV format, the many new releases by teenage star Robin – and all in all pop music sung in Finnish, the “in” singers being boosted in their career by such media megahits as Voice of Finland or Idols. Also among the celebrities in 2013 were rap idol Cheek, Finnish pop pioneer J. Karjalainen and the popular young Haloo Helsinki band. The Finnish-speaking mainstream was challenged by another teenage star, 13-year-old Isac Elliot, who sings in English and also hit the charts in Norway and elsewhere.

The numbers for streaming listeners do, however, give a slightly broader view of what the Finns want to hear. High in the Spotify charts for 2013 are, for example, many foreign names with a strong following in Finland. Hence “Finnish” is not, perhaps, the norm for streaming youngsters in the way it is for buyers of discs.

Or maybe Spotify, which keeps statistics on the number of times an item has been listened to, comes closer to the core of Finnish listening habits? For physical purchases or downloads are entered only once in the statistics, regardless of how many times the record is actually inserted in a player, thereby discounting the dozens of times the trendiest pieces are heard.


The digital future

Whether the statistics show sales or listening times, the charts can, even at their very best, give only an average picture of the Finns’ listening habits. The total value of digital music, for example, tells us nothing about the changing field of culture as a whole; forming a picture of this is far more difficult.

Two Finnish researchers, Tuukka Sandström and Lassi A. Liikkanen, tried to identify the listening habits of young adults in an enquiry conducted in late 2012. Targeted at students, it confirmed many previous impressions. The number one device for listening to music was a computer, and as many as 89 per cent of the youngsters were familiar with listening online and downloading. The significance of the percentage is even clearer on comparing it with that for all Finns: only half the nation as a whole had used the internet to listen to or download music.

Along with Spotify and other music services, the enquiry highlighted the role of YouTube. This was used by no fewer than 78 per cent of the students at least once a week to listen to music. They nevertheless listened to more or less the same artists streamed and on YouTube. The main difference was in how they listened: the streaming service playlists encouraged listening in a way similar to that on, say, a media player, whereas individual pieces were listened to on YouTube.

From this it may be concluded that streaming is above all replacing downloads, while YouTube is a response to some new need – as is also perhaps the video-sharing supported by social media.


The return of the physical?

Digital media have not, in the light of Sandström & Liikkanen’s findings, altogether replaced the physical even among young people. The CD and DVD were still the number one choice for focused listening at home. According to the researchers, we may see a nostalgic subculture emerging around the CD as the personal memories of record collections grow fainter in the clouds.

The physical record does, of course, also mean a lot to the older generation. According to a survey conducted by Consumer Compass and commissioned by IFPI Finland, the computer and smartphone are first and foremost the domain of the under-30s; the older age groups valued their car stereos and CD/DVD players. This is only natural, for over the years oldies have built up quite a collection of their favourite music, and replacing this with digital services may be time-consuming and laborious.

The growing LP culture is also reflected in the sales statistics. Though the monetary sums are small in proportion to the recording industry as a whole, vinyl records are growing steadily in popularity. This says a lot about the functions of music listening to which streaming and downloading have not, or at least not yet, succeeded in widely responding.

Towards a global market

It is only natural that the music of our own language and cultural region should feature large in our national statistics. Pop music in Finnish is produced only in Finland, and most of those who purchase it are here.

The record business is, however, international. Consumers can buy online from anywhere in the world, and Finland also produces a lot of music aiming at a global market. This market is particularly important for marginal genres. For although the market share of, say, classical music may be small in one region, language and culture are virtually no obstacle to global consumption.

Ondine, which began life as a small independent Finnish company in 1985, nowadays ranks among the world’s most prestigious classical music labels. According to Managing Director Reijo Kiilunen, most of its releases have, from the very beginning, been aimed at a global audience. As the domestic scene undergoes fundamental change, the target is even more on the international market.

“Of the discs we’re releasing this year, really only a couple of Christmas ones are aimed at the Finnish market. All the rest are intended primarily for the world at large,” says Kiilunen.

Nowadays, even fan communities can quickly spread abroad. One of the biggest hits in Finland at the moment is 13-year-old Isac Elliot, whose debut album Wake Up World shot to the top of the Finnish album charts the moment it was released in May 2013. His single New Way Home was an immediate success in Norway, too, and by the end of the year, boosted by local gigs, the album stood at number four in the Norwegian sales charts.

Although the popularity of Isac Elliot is not, in terms of record sales, yet on a par with that of another teenager, Robin (15), who sings in Finnish, the fan figures suggest that he has the potential makings of an international megastar. He has more gigs scheduled for Norway and Sweden in spring 2014, and his road to fame has been further paved by a documentary released for Finnish cinema distribution in February 2014.


Translation: Susan Sinisalo
Featured photo: Marek Sabogal / Sony Music.