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Album Sales Down for Mid-Year 2012, Digital Sales Up: Commentary

The music industry is abuzz over the mid-year sales report from Nielson Soundscan. As reported by Billboard, overall album sales (including both physical CD and digital) are down 3.2 percent over this time last year. This dashes the hopes of some that record sales in general might be making a recovery, as indicated by last year’s increases.

However, crunch the numbers a little deeper, and an interesting trend emerges. As it turns out, digital album sales may be the saving grace for the overall sales market right now. While physical sales of CDs are actually down over 15 percent over this time last year, digital album downloads are up by 13.8 percent. While these figures still combine to show a net drop in sales figures, they also appear to confirm what many have been suspecting for awhile: digital downloads are overtaking CD sales by a fairly wide margin. This begs the question whether CDs are truly going to become obsolete within a few years.

What does this mean for the industry, or for the music artists trying to make a living? No doubt this report will be troubling to industry stalwarts, some of whom are still attempting to preserve the status quo. However, for forward, “new music industry” thinkers, this data will likely prove useful in formulating new marketing strategies.

As for the musicians, that really depends on one’s outlook. For awhile now, indie musicians have been facing this trend head-on, and rather fearlessly, as many now release their projects in digital format only. It is actually a cost-effective trend for small-time musicians who fund their own projects, as it is much cheaper to upload high-quality tracks for sale on the Internet than it is to mass-produce hundreds or thousands of CDs (which are not likely to sell, anyhow).

This is a matter of personal speculation and opinion, but I have consistently leaned toward the idea that change is inevitable, and those who are willing to adapt to change (rather than control it) are the ones most likely to thrive in a new musical landscape. While music piracy has certainly raised a lot of issues for the industry (a debate recently revived by David Lowery and Emily White), it doesn’t change the fact that music as a commodity is more in demand now than ever. I believe that forward thinkers who can adapt to these shifts in sales trends will be able to come up with ideas to harness new technology in a manner that enables musicians and others in the industry to receive fair compensation.

In short—I believe we can adapt.

Interestingly, two other bits of data emerged from the report. In physical CD sales, Adele apparently prevented the numbers from sinking even further, dominating that market with sales of her CD 21. On the digital side, the major players were two singles: “We Are Young” by fun., and “Somebody that I Used to Know” by Gotye. These two singles account for more than 10 million downloads so far in 2012. I don’t know what significance this holds for the overall trends—it’s just interesting to me. :)

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About the Author


David Tillman is an independent composer/arranger whose primary work involves writing jingles for commercials for radio and television, with several film and television placements to his credit as well. David has a fascination for all things related to the music business and the music industry in general, an obsession which his wife finds to be mildly unhealthy at times. His personal tastes in music are in electronica and industrial rock, and include The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk and Nine Inch Nails (he loves that Trent Reznor is writing soundtracks!). When not in his office or in his man-cave, David enjoys skiing, hiking, the occasional game of golf, and sometimes just lounging by the pool. David lives with his wife and three children in Los Angeles, CA.

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