Characteristics of the UK catalogue

There are a range of estimates of the size of the UK catalogue. The MCPS keeps records of sales by line item for the purposes of collecting publishing royalties. It estimates that there are some 60,000 line items in the catalogues of the UK record companies which are currently available in the UK, including singles. In contrast the BPI estimates that there are nearer 100,000 line items available. The line items range from titles that sell a few hundred and have limited availability in retail outlets to classical titles that are available in dozens of different recordings. The number of line items has been increasing over the last few years, as titles previously available on vinyl or cassette are reissued on CD, and recordings are recycled in compilations. However, the MCPS stressed the approximate nature of any estimate of catalogue size. The true number of line items available in the UK could be double its estimate because of imports.

We have been told that catalogue size in any territory is a poor indicator of choice of title available to the consumer because a retailer could probably order a copy of any title in the world catalogue of a major record company and receive it in a matter of days. To gain some impression of the `effective catalogue’ of available titles that are demanded by consumers it is useful to examine actual deliveries of records to retailers. One major record company provided us with data of actual supplies of its albums in the UK and USA for the 12 weeks between 22 May 1993 and 13 August 1993 for every title for which there was at least one album delivered.


  • Four different ways of measuring and comparing the range of deliveries of records by the company in the two countries. The four measures produce a consistent picture. The UK had 21 per cent more titles delivered than the USA. In the UK 25 titles accounted for 50 per cent of deliveries-in the USA this required only 11 titles. In the UK the Top 10 accounted for 32 per cent of deliveries-in the USA they accounted for 49 per cent. In the UK the company was required to deliver one album per week for 167 titles-in the USA for 43 titles.
  • The evidence suggests that UK consumers demand and receive a greater range of titles than US consumers, even though the population of the USA is some five times greater than that of the UK.
  • The characteristics of the total catalogue of recordings available in the UK have already been described to some extent in the section on sales (eg in terms of music category, price category and format). Similar figures for numbers of titles are not readily available. Record companies tend to identify catalogue items by title and format (ie a line item) rather than title alone. Hence an album may appear three times if it is available on CD, cassette, and LP. However, one of the major record companies was able to provide figures for its catalogue by line item for the last five years (see Appendix 5.3). This demonstrates the importance of the CD format and the decline of the vinyl format particularly for classical titles. It also illustrates the increase in the number of titles available at mid-price and budget.
  • Since each title is likely to be available on CD the number of CD line items may be regarded as a good indicator of the number of titles. On this basis it has been possible to compile estimates of the numbers of titles currently available from four of the major companies (see Table 5.33).

Table 5.33  Number of album titles in the current UK catalogues of the major record companies


Catalogues and Countries


Comparisons of catalogues available in different countries is not a simple process. First, demand characteristics vary by country. For example, Japan, Germany, and France tend to have relatively large catalogues because, in addition to the internationally available titles from English-speaking artists from the USA and the UK, there are particular traditional and linguistic features to the markets. Secondly, titles are not always available on all formats. The decline of the vinyl format is widespread and in some countries such as the Netherlands and Japan almost all sales are of CDs. Thirdly, in some countries, the single is no longer a significant feature (France and Germany) while in others it remains significant (UK and Japan). Fourthly, markets with a relatively high interest in a wide range of genres tend to have broader catalogues available (USA, UK, Netherlands and Japan).

A major record company has provided estimates of the numbers of line items it offers currently in a number of countries (Table 5.35). Apart from Japan, it offers the largest number of line items in the UK. By contrast another estimated that it offered 5,500 titles in the USA (3,472 non-classical, 2,028 classical) compared with 2,128 in the UK (1,000 non-classical, 1,128 classical).

Catalogue and Genres


Typically the record companies do not categorize different types of music by genre apart from classical and non-classical. One company carried out an analysis by music genre of the titles currently in its UK catalogue.

Classical titles represent about half of the total number of titles available but they accounted for less than [ † ] of its album sales in 1992. The lower sales volumes for classical albums result in a much longer period for the recovery of the initial costs of a successful album. An analysis of the sales of all the albums released in the second half of 1992 by three of the majors showed that by six months after release the classical albums had each sold an average of only 1,125 copies compared with an average of 17,500 for the nonclassical albums.

Back catalogue

The back catalogue of pop albums consists of recordings which are no longer new releases but continue to be available. Since the initial costs of production and promotion have been recouped or written off, sales of back catalogue are particularly valuable to the record companies. Some records by established artists (such as Bob Dylan, The Beatles or Elvis Presley) have been part of the catalogue for a considerable number of years.

The record companies continually seek ways of exploiting back catalogue titles. The introduction of the CD has led to the reissue of back catalogue material on the new format, often after the original recording has been digitally remastered to enhance the quality. Consumers who already own a title on another format may wish to purchase the CD version for their collection. Sometimes a reissue can have significant sales and enter the charts (eg EMI’s re-release of the Beatles’ Red and Blue albums on CD in 1993). Older titles might also be rereleased at mid- or budget price. Licensing tracks for use on compilation albums (eg Greatest Hits, Love Songs, Dance) is particularly important and such albums form a significant sector of the record market which has grown in recent years. Some compilation albums are marketed through television advertising by record companies such as Telstar and Dino Entertainment, as well as by the majors. Many old classical recordings have also been digitally remastered and offered on CD either at full price (for collectors’ items) or at mid- or budget price in recognition of the lower quality of recording.

A recent development has been the introduction and success of the commercial classical music station, Classic FM. This has generated interest in classical music and led to promotional spin-offs such as a classical music chart in W H Smith. It also provides an opportunity to advertise classical music but this does not seem to have led to the expected increase in sales of classical music or attendance at live concerts.

Past catalogue

The majority of recordings in the past catalogue were commercial failures and are therefore unlikely to be released again. A small proportion of the past catalogue, however, may be released if reasonable sales are possible. Examples of circumstances that may lead to the release of past catalogue are:

  • the anniversary or death of an artist may lead to the re-release of old albums or the release of new compilations;
  • the revival of interest in a particular period of music, eg a 1960s revival prompted by a television series;
  • the use of a particular track in a television programme or advertisement may generate demand for other recordings by the same artist; and
  • third parties may request licences to re-release certain recordings, typically as part of a compilation.

Some past catalogue may be released for the first time. For example, interest in a successful artist may lead to the release of works that were recorded some years before but not released at the time. These might be tracks that were not selected for release on an album or different versions of tracks that were included on previous albums. For example, Bob Dylan released an album entitled The bootleg series (rare & unreleased) 1961-1991. The title was prompted by the fact that some of the tracks on the album had already found their way on to the market illegally over the years.

Unreleased material

Record companies hold the rights to many more recordings that are no longer available (or were never released) and which may be termed the `past’ catalogue. The number of titles in the past catalogue is vast. EMI told us that it is unable to give a figure for the number of titles it holds but estimates that it runs to seven figures.

(Another highlight from the British 1994 report on recorded music by the Ministry of Mergers and Competition)

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