Full album sales showed growth in 2011
FOR the beleaguered music industry, any positive news about sales is cause for celebration.
And in 2011, the numbers were slightly up.
Sales of complete albums, the industry’s most profitable product, reached 330.6 million in the United States last year, a 1.3 percent increase from 2010, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which collects sales data from retailers. Some businesses might call that level of growth flat, but since album sales had fallen every year since 2004, it was a notable improvement.
Some of that marginal growth came from one album, Adele’s 21 (XL/Columbia) which sold 5.82 million copies, the best one-year sales count for any album since Usher’s Confessions sold 7.98 million copies in 2004.
The increases were largely driven by consumption of digital music, whose growth quickened last year after a slow 2010. Last year 1.27 billion individual tracks were downloaded in the US, up 8.5 percent from the year before, and sales of complete digital albums reached 103.1 million, a 19.5 percent gain from 2010.
Yet music executives, accustomed to the industry’s downward sales slope over the last decade, were cautious about interpreting last year’s gains as representing more than a small uptick.
According to the Recording Industry Association of America, revenue from recorded music fell 52 percent from 2000 to 2010.
“It’s encouraging,” said Rob Stringer, the chairman of Columbia Records, which distributes Adele’s album in the US. “But we would be silly to jump up and down.” After Adele’s 21, the most popular titles of 2011 were Michael Buble’s Christmas (143/Reprise), with 2.45 million sales; Lady Gaga’s Born This Way (Interscope), with 2.1 million; Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV (Cash Money/Universal Republic), with 1.92 million; and the country singer Jason Aldean’s My Kinda Party (Broken Bow), which had 1.58 million sales.
Adele, 23, a British retro-soul singer, has a straightforward style that is at odds with the electronic dance-pop that dominates the Top 40, yet her songs Rolling in the Deep and Someone Like You became hits on multiple radio formats. That helped her album, which released in February, remain one of the top five sellers for almost every week of the year.
Stringer attributed Adele’s success to the quality of her music, to a marketing plan that made use of all the modern tools like social media, and strategically chosen placements in film and television.
Yet the label avoided the excessive branding deals and product endorsements that could have turned her fans off.
“We were omnipresent but not overexposed,” Stringer said.
Analysts also pointed to several benefi- cial trends in retail. Online, record labels and digital shops like iTunes and Amazon now regularly promote deluxe versions of albums, which offer bonus content for a premium price.
“Digital retailers are getting better and better at giving customers what they want,” said David Bakula, a senior analyst at Nielsen.
For the first time, digital music purchases surpassed those of physical albums like CDs and vinyl records: 50.3 percent of all units sold – whether singles or full albums – were digital, according to SoundScan.
But fire-sale pricing by retailers online and offline may be conditioning consumers to expect unsustainable discounts.
In a promotion that enraged brick-and-mortar record stores, Amazon briefly sold the download version of Lady Gaga’s album for 99 cents. And to lure consumers to ever-shrinking CD racks, big-box stores regularly price “catalogue” albums – titles more than 18 months old – at $5 or less.
Those discounts may have contributed to one of the more surprising statistics in SoundScan’s annual report: Sales of CDs, after dropping 19.5 percent in 2010, fell only 5.7 percent last year, to 223.5 million.
(As recently as 2004, however, total CD sales were almost three times that number.) And sales of vinyl albums, which have bolstered independent shops, rose 36 percent to 3.9 million, their highest level since SoundScan opened in 1991.
Analysts and music executives pointed to the continued growth of digital music – and the expansion of streaming services like Spotify and MOG, whose revenue from advertising and subscriptions is not tracked by SoundScan – as the most promising signs for an industry in which hitting a low point is seen as a positive indicator.
“It’s a bit more than a blip,” Michael McGuire, a media analyst at Gartner, said of the slight growth in music sales last year. “I think it’s the sign that the music industry is finally starting to come to figure out the digital present and future, at least when it comes to download sales. Perhaps we’ve seen the bottom.”