Here Comes The Science Bit
If mathematics sends your mind into a tailspin, then look away now. Because in this article I’m about to peel back the curtain on the precise numbers behind the sagging rump of the paid-for musical market. Ever wondered (as dedicated online fandoms are increasingly keen on doing) exactly how many copies the latest work by your idol has been selling over the past day or so? Unless you had friends in the music industry with access to detailed sales flashes, it was impossible to know for sure.
Only now it is. And it is all thanks to flagging sales numbers which are now exposed in a manner which surely nobody could ever have anticipated.
A Brief History Of Time
Like so many apps focused on the display and ordering of live and constantly changing data sources, iTunes is at heart an XML reader. Anyone who has ever examined the contents of their computer’s Music folder will understand this. The metadata for your entire musical database is contained in a single XML index file. This, incidentally, is the reason iTunes struggles with music collections more substantial than a couple of thousand tracks. That’s one huge file it has to scan through.
Even browsing the store part of the app works in the same manner. The client requests the live data from Apple; all delivered as an XML stream. This data was never a secret. Straightforward packet sniffing exposed just where the application was polling for its data. However the process of understanding this was made far simpler in 2012 when Apple made all the relevant URLs public and essentially opened the door for third-party developers to construct interfaces to the iTunes store or incorporate it into their personal projects.
The most interesting datasets are the ones iTunes uses to construct its internal charts. The lists of the biggest selling tracks or applications or movies of any given moment. During the height of the digital download era, the live iTunes charts were an invaluable guide to taking out much of the guesswork as to how the singles chart would look at the end of the week. Although the exact methodology used in its compilation has still never officially been confirmed, it has long been apparent that your position in the iTunes sales charts represented how many copies you had sold in the preceding 24 hours relative to everyone else.
The datasets never contain the exact sales figures, merely numbers that can be used to construct what iTunes calls the Popularity Bars, those curious blocks of lines which show you at a glance which tracks from an album or which episodes of a podcast are the most popular at that particular moment in time. The numbers are always expressed as a percentage of the most popular item in the category. Thus the Number One track of the moment always has a popularity index of 1.0, and if the second biggest was selling 92% of that total, it had an index value of 0.92.
A Valued Bookmark
Dedicated chart watchers have long made use of these numbers, thanks mainly to the work of the Dutchman known enigmatically as Kworb. His kworb.net website has for years been diligently scraping the sales data for every available country and presenting them as close as possible in an hour by hour analysis of what is selling and what is trending. But deep down it was still only possible to track the “popularity bars” and look at the underlying trends they represented. There was no easy way of determining the actual numbers behind the data. This was a neat bit of obfuscation which seemed to satisfy everyone.
However since the rise of the streaming services and the corresponding collapse of the download market this obfuscation no longer works as planned. It is now possible to calculate precisely how many copies a single track has sold in the past 24 hours. All thanks to the minimal levels of sales taking place at the lower end of the market.
Above is a screencap from Kworb, showing the state of the iTunes market on Saturday (10th March). I’ve chosen Saturday simply because this represents what is usually a high point in the market and gives us some meaningful data and above all fully representative data for us to use. I first performed this exercise using data from a Wednesday, figures which were so low they were barely believable.
Notice that the tracks at the base of the Top 100 are covered by just a few tiers of percentage figures, with several tracks tied on the same numbers. Indicating they have sold exactly the same number of copies as each other. The gap between each of these tiers is tier is also uniform – in this example roughly 0.0003 percentage points each time (subject to rounding errors given that the numbers only run to four decimal places).
The implication is clear. Every time those numbers change by such a small amount, this represents a difference in sales of a single copy. Armed with that knowledge it is a simple bit of maths to work out just how many copies each track has sold based on its stated percentage points:
x / 0.0003 (where x is the number given for each track’s popularity bars)
So, say we want to calculate the sales achieved in the last 24 hours by the Number 94 single Top Off by DJ Khaled we simply have to calculate:
200 / 3 = 66.666
We round up, of course, you cannot sell fractions of a copy after all. But yes, you read that correctly. The singles at the very bottom of the iTunes Top 100 on Saturday were selling just 67 copies every 24 hours. Using this same formula we can work our way up the table to get some more meaningful numbers. For example, how many copies per day was the Number 40 single selling?
861 / 3 = 287
Just 287 copies in a day to make the Top 40 of the live iTunes chart. So what about the Top 10? Last summer when asked I would suggest to people that about 5,000 copies a day were sufficient to make the iTunes Top 10. Is that still the case right at this moment?
3702 / 3 = 1234
That’s quite jaw-dropping. The Number 10 single on iTunes as of Saturday had sold only a shade over 1,000 copies in the preceding 24 hours. Has your online fandom propelled your latest release straight into the iTunes Top 10? Then, in all honesty, there still aren’t very many of them.
If we take this to the very top of the market, the Number One single – well that is even easier to work out. We already know that its sales are expressed as 1 – or 10000 using the multipliers I’ve been using for the sake of illustration. So, therefore:
10000 / 3 = 3333
3,000 copies a day, assuming this was consistent across the week, would amount to a total weekly sale from iTunes of the Number One single of around 21,000 copies. This number is entirely in line with reported figures for the top end of the sales market, proving that our maths here is sound.
5% Of Not Very Much
At this point, you start to see how problematic it is becoming to continually look to purchased sales of music as an adequate barometer of the popularity of the pop record. This simply isn’t the case anymore. It is merely the barometer of its popularity amongst the diminishing number of people who consume music in this manner. A month ago when Kylie Minogue released her exciting new single Dancing, there were a fair number of longtime fans figuratively losing their shit online when it failed to reach the published Top 40 chart. Noting that on pure sales terms the single was the 15th biggest seller of the week, this we were told was proof of the way the integration of streaming data has “ruined” the charts.
As we now know, becoming the Number 15 best seller of the week means very little. During her first week on sale, Kylie sold just 8,000 singles. Or to put it another way, only a shade over 1,000 copies a day spread across the week. That isn’t representative of anything approaching widespread popularity.
At the start of this year, Apple was busy angrily denying a report that it was planning the imminent sunset of the iTunes store, this despite the piece alleging this being quite specific as to the timescale it was to happen and just how the customer base was going to be transferred. Denials aside, there is without question no future in the market for purchased digital tracks, these unlikely to retain the kind of niche affection that physically pressed records and CDs still maintain. Even the numbers I’ve quoted above represent an ongoing and quite calamitous collapse in the size of the paid-for digital music market.
The iTunes track download no longer has the status of a mass-market product which it once enjoyed. Everyone has moved on, and we now have the detailed numbers to prove it.