Music Sales: A Bleak Landscape

Music sales analysis from 2014 is starting to come in.
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BFRAnK WeLLS
fwells@nbmedia.com Music sales analysis from 2014 is starting to come in. It’s no surprise, but Nielsen/Soundscan’s numbers comparing 2013 and 2014 (http://bit.ly/1FOvi4b) show an overall trend that can be described in one word: down. Overall album sales were down 11 percent. Digital album sales were down 9 percent (the percentage of album sales that were digital downloads stayed unchanged at 41 percent). Downloads of digital singles were down 12 percent.

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Overall, current album sales (albums released in the past 18 months) were down 14 percent while catalog album sales were down 9.1 percent. For physical albums, the numbers were -13.3 percent for current releases and -11.4 percent for catalog releases. Digital download album sales were down 15.1 percent for current releases, while digital downloads of catalog albums were off 3.1 percent

Were there any bright spots? In album sales, CDs continued to decline, off 14.9 percent. Digital downloads of albums were off 9.4 percent. But vinyl was up 51.8 percent at 9.2 million units. You’ve no doubt seen the press ballyhooing “record vinyl album sales,” and that claim is true, if you only look at Nielsen numbers. But Soundscan, now part of Nielsen, only began tracking sales in 1991. For comparison, the RIAA cites 344 million units in vinyl LP sales in 1977. Vinyl sales in 2014 an all-time record? Only by naïve measure (naiveté encouraged by Nielsen which states “Vinyl album sales were up 52 percent in 2014, shattering last year’s record-setting total by more than 3 million LPs.”). Engage your hyperbole filter!

For further comparison, Nielsen cites 140.8 million CD albums sold in 2014, and 106.5 million albums were downloaded digitally (vinyl accounted for more than 6 percent of total physical album sales). Vinyl continues its resurgence, for sure, but even at the growth numbers it is experiencing, there’s a long way to go to get anywhere close to record sales. At some point, the growth of vinyl will be limited by available capacity; there aren’t new presses being made, just like there are no multitrack analog tape machines in production. It’s a finite market based on exhaustible resources.

The other bright spot in the report? Streaming: the distribution method that’s disrupting digital downloads and CD sales. Overall, on-demand audio and music video streams are up 54.5 percent (audio-only streaming is up 60.5 percent). The Nielsen report cited here doesn’t break out the total in “Streaming Equivalent Albums” (SEA, where 1,500 streams is given album equivalency) and “Track Equivalent Albums” (TEA, where 10 downloads equal an album) except by genre. By that prism, SEA bests album sales and TEA in the Dance/Electronic and Latin categories. Streaming Equivalent Albums beat all albums and TEAs individually (but not combined) in R&B/Hip Hop (really, those are a single genre?) and bests all album sales and matches TEA in Pop. SEAs best TEAs, but not album sales, in the Children, Holiday/Seasonal and Rock categories.

This particular report does not address revenues, just units. My research indicates that there is (again, no surprise) less money in the kitty overall. Streaming is notoriously not as lucrative for artists in general. The artists then have less to spend on studios and engineering talent. Also, while streaming is ever more convenient, and affords a larger library than most humans can collect through legitimate ownership means, digital or physical, it’s a pity the quality mostly sucks, services like Tidal excepting.

Move along, nothing to get excited about here.