Who Is Buying the Most Music? It's Not Who You Think

Updated on January 19, 2018

Justin Bieber and a boy band called One Direction are some of the biggest names in modern music. So, not surprisingly many people assume that most music buyers are tweens or teens. But the 45+ age group is actually the largest music buying demographic according to a Consumer Trends survey by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Tweens and teens are the smallest. You may think that much of that 45+ music is probably being bought for children or grandchildren. Without a doubt some is. But much of what's being purchased is called catalog music. A lot of this is music from the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's rather than newer acts. In 2012, catalog acts like Guns N' Roses, Queen, The Beatles and Whitney Houston were outselling new acts. Younger people mostly buy singles because they have far less disposable income. The Jezebel.com article "Who's Buying Music, Is It You?" points out:

"...teenagers don’t buy as many tunes as people think, accounting for only seven percent of CD sales and just 12 percent of downloads — that means adults are buying Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande albums. Also, dudes used to buy most of the digital downloads, but now women buy around 54 percent of digital albums."

You may be wondering why the recording industry largely markets music to a younger demographic (mainly 14 to 24 year olds) rather than the demographic that actually buys the most music. There are a few different reasons for this.

Adele Has Sold Millions of Albums with Music that Appeals to Older Music Buyers

Older Music Buyers Can Be Set in Our Ways

Taste in music is often established in our younger years. So, many people prefer the music that was around when they were children and young adults. It's easy to malign the likes of One Direction and Justin Bieber today. But many highly respected acts like The Beatles and Elvis started out doing music with mass appeal before producing great works like Hey Jude and Suspicious Minds.

The fact is many older music buyers don't actively go out looking for new artists. Older people are far less likely to listen to the radio, where most new artists are broken. If they aren't willing to buy the music of younger artists, labels have less reason to appeal to a more mature demographic.

However, the success of Adele may have labels rethinking their assumptions about who will buy new artists. Adele's music is aimed at older music buyers. Yes, older music buyers can be very set in our ways and we often don't actively go looking for new artists. But it is likely that older people will buy the music of younger artists if the record companies can just find a way to reach us. However, that also proves to be a challenge.

It's Easier to Market to Younger People

It's much easier for record labels to target younger audiences than older audiences. Older people are busier with jobs and families. They have a wide variety of interests and listen to less music radio. Younger people can easily be targeted through pop radio stations, entertainment shows, advertisements during television shows aimed at teens, online sources aimed at teens, and teen magazines. Labels can target a large youth audience through limited media outlets. This isn't possible with older audiences. It's much harder to pinpoint the best way to target music to older listeners. Younger people are also more susceptible to marketing techniques than older people. Again, the success of Adele would prove that it's not impossible to market music to an older demographic.

Younger People Attend More Concerts

Younger people are much more likely to attend concerts, so record labels aren't as dependent on record sales to make money from artists that are popular with younger audiences. They can make money from artists in many different ways. Younger people are more likely to purchase merchandise like posters, t-shirts, books and other products.

The music industry could go into decline if it doesn't develop and help new artists mature
The music industry could go into decline if it doesn't develop and help new artists mature

Risks for the Music Industry

Many record labels have done away with artist development departments as they have focused more on creating acts aimed at tweens and teens. There is a concern that newer artists won't have the longevity that many earliers acts like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and Madonna have had. If record companies don't invest more in developing their acts and ensuring they stay for the long haul, there might not be a big catalog market in the future to keep the music industry afloat.

A group like One Direction may never get to create their own Hey Jude (assuming that they have that creative ability in them) if they can't grow up with their fans. As people get older they want quality. Labels need to ensure that artists grow and mature with their audiences by moving them away from bubble gum mainstream music to more meaningful songs. The Beatles quickly moved from mainstream songs like Love Me Do to more grown up songs like Eleanor Rigby. If artists don't do that, they will likely fade away as their fans grow and mature. Considering the demographics that actually buy music, artist development needs to once again become a priority.

Questions & Answers


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      • profile image

        DON COOPER 6 months ago

        Response to Sarah from 20 months ago: You can attempt to discredit ELVIS all you like but it wont work. ELVIS proved himself time and time again and nobody is gonna take that away from him. You are just jealous because he was/is the total package and could do it all. No one can compare with him and I don't care if you're taking about Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Justin Timberlake, Justin Beiber, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga or whoever else you have in mind.You are just gonna have to sit back and learn to love it because he is "THE KING" whether you like it or not.

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        Paul 12 months ago

        I'm 45 and buy singles on line of Perry and Bieber because are pop. Hate the mature acts. You're talking only for yourself.

      • Robert Ruane profile image

        Robert Ruane 14 months ago

        This is a well-written piece that brought up some good points. I still seek out new music done old-school style--ranging from folk to Americana to neosoul, plus a few retro-sounding current pop tunes. I have had a personal song chart of my favorites, and I update it every few weeks.

      • JoanCA profile image

        JoanCA 17 months ago


        The big question is if the Beatles had been around today would they even have been allowed the musical freedom they would have needed to be great. That's the problem with the modern music industry. It's not necessarily a lack of talent. It's a lack of freedom. And I think that lack of freedom and the difficulty young artists have creating the music they want to create could come back to haunt the music industry in the future.

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        balloony 17 months ago

        i think much of the detail in this report is not correct and is based on both inhuman statistical data and assumption based on how the music scene appears. there are huge differences between the likes of modern commercial successes mentioned and older music, mainly in raw talent. this is why the beatles outsell everyone else, nothing more and this is why the music industry will try to outsell the beatles but fall back on sales statistics to fake creative success. adelle and katie perry, one direction and justin beiber can never compare with the beatles and other older artists because they simply dont have it. their presence on the music scene represents the monopolisation and control of industry corporates looking for safe investments. until the industry gets over this all debates about sales are nonsensical.

      • JoanCA profile image

        JoanCA 18 months ago


        The way I see it is that artists in the past operated with less constraints than artists today. Pop radio was much more varied in what it would play in the past. It's fascinating to look up Billboard Hot 100 #1's from the 1970's because they were so varied genre-wise with dance, country, rock, R&B, and adult contemporary songs. In 1975 there were 37 #1's covering multiple genres. In 2015 there were only 11 #1's with very similar sounds. Radio playlists have narrowed a lot making it harder to get airplay. The strict limitations on what can get onto pop radio make it harder for artists to have both mainstream success and create timeless music. Talent comparisons become kind of meaningless because the environment of today is in no way like the environment of the 60's and 70's. I agree with you too that there are plenty of great modern artists in all kinds of genres outside the mainstream.

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        Rey 18 months ago

        The comparisons being made here are laughable and obviously from people with low scrutiny for exceptionally talented voices, songwriters and producers. First, of course there are just as many (perhaps more) talented artist today, as they were in the yesteryears of the 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's and so forth. I would argue that they are not as prevalent on major labels as they were in the past, however with today's technology they can be found with a little effort and time. That being said...some of you folks need to quit with this generalization of people's assements that the likes of popular catalog type artist of the past like Michael Jackson, Beatles, Elvis, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie were on a higher level of quality than the likes of a Justin Bieber, Kesha, One Direction, and Brittney Spears (LOL!); this is not the result of Rose Tinted glasses, its due to a seasoned and distictive musical ear. It's not to say those artist of today are not talented...all of them are to varying degrees; but the fact is the catalog artist are of a higher degree of talent and artistic excellence, making them more rare and thus worthy of being purchased in the droves decades later. That's called TIMELESS MUSIC...that's when you know have created something truly special. Again, that being said there are loads of really rare and talented young artist out there today across the main generes and the myriad of sub generes.

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        samuel victor j 19 months ago

        Remember that popular 80's phrase: Pop will eat itself? I didn't understand it when I was a youngster but now I get it. What happens when you try to eat a bubble-gum? You chew on it just long enough, when it's weak and flexible you can blow it into a big bubble. And at its biggest it will….. 'POP'. Bamm, end of story… Candy is for kids. Grow up or blow up. If the artist won't grow it'll be over very soon.

      • JoanCA profile image

        JoanCA 2 years ago


        I agree with you. The music we hear from the past nowadays was the best of the best. Some classic radio stations replay the old Casey Kasem top 40 countdowns from earlier years. If you listen to the top 40's from the 70's and 80's it's clear that a lot of music back then was bland and generic. I think 70's rock was better than modern rock but I think modern pop music is significantly better now than it was in the 70's or 80's.

        I think it's definitely still the case that artists can move toward mature music. Justin Timberlake being an obvious example. Katy Perry on the other hand is an example of a label not wanting to let an artist mature. I think she needs to go more mature on her next album to maintain her career over the next couple of decades. If someone gets enough power in their career they can take more control. But a lot of artists never really get that chance. They often fade away before they can move to a more mature sound. Britney is actually an example in my mind of someone who has managed to stick around but she's never really had a chance to show a more mature or grown up side. I don't feel like people take her seriously. She's seen more as a pop culture figure than an actual artist.

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        Sarah 2 years ago

        You know, all I kept hearing about is the glory days from adults about the time where we had "talents" such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Michael Jackson. I thought the same thing, what has happened to the music industry? As time went on, I realized that people have been looking at the past with rose tinted glasses. These artists are no better than the artists of today. Music has just changed because sounds change and they change with the lifestyle of young people. I doubt the person above me who flipped out over the comparison over Elvis Presley and Justin Bieber even understands his own delusion of his generation.

        It's even more hypocritical rather because he was mainly an artist of the past or because he's a man. Either way, we know why Elvis sold more records than any artists. Was he a talented vocalist? Sure, but so were a lot of other singers. I think people seem to forget that his sex appeal, his skin color, and his ridiculously gaudy stage apparel had basically everything to do with his popularity and people happen to be living in denial when they forget that Elvis didn't write a single word of his own songs and stole songwriting credits like Beyonce does nowadays. Let's not forget that any concert footage of the Beatles consisted of a ton of female fans and they just like today don't care how thought provoking or clever the lyrical content is. I also seem to remember hearing about how the older generation of that time complained about those bands and how they didn't play real music or sung too much about sex, devil music was it called? Pop music has always existed and image has been an important factor even before Michael Jackson made music videos popular. The top selling artists of all time are people who sold more for their image and safe radio hits than their actual talent, even though I feel all artists have talent. The past seems to repeat itself and nobody learns from it.

        Also, I disagree with the comments that teen pop artists don't grow into successful adult artists. Have you ever heard of Britney Spears? She went from singing kiddy pop to transforming herself into a more mature artist and has just enough Youtube and radio hits and even more number 1s now than she ever did with her first 5 albums. Okay, so she went downhill with her last album, but being in the game and staying at least a little relevant for 15 years is a lot to say about how much you can grow and keep going, even when the younger generation has seemed to move on. We have not seen this kind of continued success in the past, especially from the likes of Tiffany and Debbie Gibson from the 80s. Also, groups like N'sync and Backstreet Boys only break up because they get tired of their music that is too young for them and try to move on to being more serious artists but don't know how, not because they are type casted. Nick Jonas and Zayn Malik seem to be getting enough respect as more mature artists(even though their careers are still premature at this point). Taylor Swift has had the same kind of young sound that she always had, even in her mid 20s now and seems to be going even more further to the direction of incredibly safe, catchy, and very sing-a-long radio hits than she ever has in her actual teen years. Justin Bieber also has a more grown up album that came out and seems to be doing well, showing he is at least a little more talented than he put on when he was just riding in the glory of being every 11 year old's dream.

      • JoanCA profile image

        JoanCA 3 years ago

        Laudemhir Jan,

        Teens are buying a lot of singles, so the top 40 charts are heavily influenced by younger buyers although plenty of adults (esp women) also buy top 40 songs. Older buyers buy a lot of albums and many still buy CDs. It would be great if people bought more serious music but enough is being bought that plenty of it still gets made.

      • Laudemhir Jan profile image

        Laudemhir Jan 3 years ago from Davao City, Philippines

        I am surprised, I thought the teens are certainly getting it! Hehe. I wish people would buy the more serious music though if that's the case, for example Bon Iver's music or other alternative tunes!

      • JoanCA profile image

        JoanCA 4 years ago


        Thanks for your response. I disagree about the comparison being ludicrous. I remember when Madonna came on the scene. She was thought to be a big joke. Yet look at the longevity she has had and the iconic status she's achieved. Who would have thought that label puppets the Jackson 5 would produce someone like Michael Jackson who would have such a huge impact on both music and dance? Or that N'Sync would have produced someone as successful as Justin Timberlake?

        Could Justin Bieber and One Direction create great music? I don't know. They would have to be given the chance. I wouldn't dismiss their abilities because I have no idea what they would be capable of if given creative freedom. That's why I say that once an act is established labels should give them the freedom to make better music and let them grow up with their fans. I don't think anyone who heard the first Beatles songs could have imagined what they were capable of doing later on. In hindsight, it's easy to say they were talented. But their early songs were pretty much made for radio bubble gum pop.

        But I do agree with you that people need to stop complaining about lack of quality and actually give younger artists a chance. The problem is when people think of past music, they think of The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and forget all the trash that was made. I love a lot of young artists and I do buy a lot of new music. I wish more middle age people like me did.

      • profile image

        Rokk 4 years ago

        As an older person actively involved in producing music for and with younger people I can honestly say there is a lot of quality music today if you are willing to search for it and have an open mind. If you limit yourself to catalogue music and only listens to particular styles or genre's then you are no different to a young person who only listening to a particular genres. Having said this some of the comparisons made in this article are ludicrous. The difference between The Beatles or Elvis and Beiber or One Direction is simply one of true artistry, quality and talent vs artkless mediocre talent and poor quality material. There is a reason Gotye won the Grammy for Record Of The Year ahead of Beiber or One Direction and it;s simple: Somebody That I Used To Know is a quality song with classy inventive production. The problem of how to ensure that quality music reaches the buying audience is a real problem that's not new but has certainly been compounded by the industry becoming less and less willing to take risks. Genre classification is also a problem. For example when a record as superb and diverse as 2010 release 'Beautiful Imperfection' by ASA is lumped into the “world music” category just because she is Nigerian; even though most of the songs are sung in Engliash and her style and the songs are more deserving of accolades and success in the Soul/R'n'B/Pop world than anything Beyonce or Adele have done, you have a problem. Modern mainstream listeners don't usually search out 'World Music' when they filter by genre on iTunes etc.

        Throwaway Pop acts like Beiber and One Direction have existed since the 1950s or longer. If you want to hear more quality music just spend the time you spend bitching about lack of quality today actively searching for the quality and you might be pleasantly surprised.

      • JoanCA profile image

        JoanCA 5 years ago


        It's not that younger people aren't buying any music at all. They tend to buy more singles than albums. But Adele who has greater appeal to older music buyers is significantly outselling Bieber when it comes to albums.

      • profile image

        Rob 5 years ago

        Interesting but that doesn't explain why artists like Justin Bieber are so popular.

      • JoanCA profile image

        JoanCA 5 years ago


        I think you're right that singers are probably more likely to be typecast now than in the past. It does make sense to mix up the commercial and less commercial, so a singer or band isn't seen as being just one thing and they can appeal to a broader audience.

      • profile image

        LA 5 years ago

        I think times have changed. The Beatles and Michael Jackson were able to move from music aimed at Tweens and teens to serious music without a problem. I don't think that's as easy now. Musical snobbery is rampant. Once you're tagged as a kiddie pop artist it's almost impossible to be taken seriously later on. That may be why labels are less interested in developing their artists. Katy Perry has always done a mix of kiddie and serious stuff, so she'll probably be around for years.

      • JoanCA profile image

        JoanCA 5 years ago

        Psychic dog,

        I'm definitely getting exposed to a lot of new music because of my kids. I'm starting to realize that there are a lot of newer songs that I like that I wouldn't have heard otherwise. I think as people get older, they do focus more on lyrics. I've found myself liking songs I didn't care for at first when I started focusing on the lyrics.

      • psychicdog.net profile image

        psychicdog.net 5 years ago

        Thanks JoanCA. Great hub. I think cream always rises so if a musician is going to make it as an artist they will - I may be different though as I'm always finding something to like in new music as well as old and my girls introduce me to the latest - my youngest girl cracked me up one day singing Good Night by Reece Mastin - I'd never heard of him or the song but at three she was singing Good Night! I followed it up with her on YouTube - the lyrics are good - I've heard it said lyrics are a major part for many people rather than the music so lyrics often survive longer.

      • JoanCA profile image

        JoanCA 5 years ago

        Thanks Alecia. A lot of boy bands like N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys had fairly short careers. I think because their fanbase got too old for their music and there's always some younger group coming along doing the same kind of music. It's very short-term thinking on the labels' parts. If they go to the expense of initially promoting an act, I think it makes sense to hold onto that act as a moneymaker for years to come.

      • Alecia Murphy profile image

        Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

        Honestly looking at the music industry, you would think that the music buyers are mostly younger but your hub has produced some interesting information.

        And now it makes sense why boy bands of the past ten to fifteen years breakup after maybe a couple of albums. I grew up with N'Sync and even though they hit it big, their last album did seem like they wouldn't last much longer- even though critically it was their best.

        The music industry seems to focus on dollars and cents which is why I can see how an artist like Adele is appealing.

        Great hub, it was a very nice read.