Digital Flashback: Over-30 Record Buyers A New Majority

For the first time since the RIAA began profiling consumers, younger fans were in the minority.

More music was bought by people over 30 than under 30 in 1998 — the first year that's happened since the Recording Industry Association of America began issuing its annual consumer-profile reports in 1987.

When the RIAA released last year's report, which examined the 1998 record-buying demographic, it pointed to the prevalence of free digital music on the Internet as the main reason for the change, along with the decline of rock's popularity among the younger age brackets.

The major record labels' trade association said that after surveying the buying habits of 3,051 music listeners, it concluded that 50.4 percent of the recorded music sold in 1998 was purchased by people 30 or older, up from only 33.5 percent in 1989. Teenagers, who bought almost a third of the music in 1989, bought 25 percent in 1998.

"Potentially the rise of the Internet as a free entertainment center — and the accompanying availability of free MP3 music files — could be contributing factors," the RIAA said in a statement.

Internet purchases accounted for only 1.1 percent of shipments in 1998, the RIAA said. Nobody knows exactly how much bootleg material is downloaded from the Internet, but estimates of MP3 activity range from 3 million to 17 million digital downloads a day. At $1 a song, that would suggest losses to RIAA members of up to $7 billion a year. Legitimate recorded music shipments in 1998 topped $13.7 billion.

Also on the wane in 1998 was the rock category. It accounted for 25.7 percent of the 1998 market, down from 41.7 percent in 1989, the RIAA said. "The absence of hits from established rock artists, the continued decline of the rock sub-genre 'Alternative,' the shrinkage of buyers in the 20–24 age bracket, once a stronghold for rock, may all be contributing factors to rock's decline."

All the big hits came from other categories such as R&B, hip-hop, country and even soundtracks. Blockbuster sellers included Janet Jackson, Lee Ann Rimes, soundtracks for "Titanic" and "City of Angels," and Lauryn Hill, who sold more than 3 million copies of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on the strength of such tracks as "To Zion" and "Doo Wop (That Thing)" (RealAudio excerpt).

Notable in the RIAA's report, issued Thursday (March 23), is the continued ascendance of the digital-CD format. Just less than 75 percent of the music sold in 1998 was shipped on CD, up from 25 percent in 1989. Analog cassettes plummeted from 55 percent to 15 percent in the same period. Vinyl LPs, once the mainstay of the recorded music business, totaled less than 1 percent of shipments in 1998.