The story of the year in the music industry should have been music streaming, as consumers almost doubled their use of streaming services in 2015.
But then along came Adele.
Just six weeks before the curtain fell on a year in which audio and video streaming increased 93%, the British queen of heartbreak released "25," an album that was withheld from on-demand services and, nevertheless, shattered sales records.
Those are the two main findings of year-end figures released Wednesday by Nielsen Music, the company that tracks consumers' spending and listening habits.
"We were awed by Adele's record-crushing '25,' " said Erin Crawford, Nielsen's senior vice president of entertainment and general manager of music, in her overview of the company's report.
Among the milestones that "25" registered:
— First week sales of 3.34 million copies, almost 40% higher than the longtime record holder, 'NSync's "No Strings Attached," which sold 2.41 million copies during its first week of release in 2000.
— Sales of "25" constituted 41% of all albums sold during that week.
— In just six weeks, "25" has sold 7.44 million copies and is the only album in the Nielsen era dating to 1991 to sell more than a million copies in three separate weeks.
— It also gave Adele her third year with the top-selling album of the year. Her sophomore album, "21," led the pack in 2011 and 2012.
Otherwise, music streaming is where the industry saw its greatest gains, as audio streams increased 83% during the year, from 79.1 billion in 2014 to 144.9 billion last year, and video streams jumped even more, 102% from 85.4 billion two years ago to 172.4 billion in 2015.
Yet current hits were not what consumers were streaming the most. Catalog songs — defined as those released at least 18 months earlier, constituted 70% of streamed music.
A small but noteworthy area of growth continued to be vinyl albums, which have grown increasingly popular over the last decade.
Last year vinyl sales hit 12 million units, a 30% increase over sales of 9.2 million vinyl albums a year earlier. That's still a drop in the bucket compared with total album sales of 241 million, which combines CDs, cassettes, vinyl and digital albums during the year. But it's the only format outside of streaming that showed growth. CD sales were down 11%, and digital album sales were off just under 3% over the previous year.
The move to streaming is also reflected in a drop in digital track sales, which dipped 12.5% from 1.1 billion in 2014 to 965 million last year.
However, when all digital music consumption was combined, Nielsen showed an overall increase of 26% in 2015. That pools the number of digital albums sold, track-equivalent album sales (whereby sales of 10 individual tracks from an album are credited as one album sold) and streaming-equivalent album sales (with 1,500 streams being counted as a single album sold).
That composite measure showed 411.3 million albums consumed in 2015, up from 326.4 million in 2014.
But again, older albums outnumbered current releases, which constituted a flip from a year earlier. Current albums sold 118.5 million units in 2015, while catalog albums surpassed them with 122.8 million units. In 2014, current albums outsold catalog albums 130.5 million to 126.5 million.
Only in the shrinking sub-category of digital album sales did current releases outsell catalog items: 52.5 million current albums to 50.9 million catalog sales.
By genre, Nielsen's report places rock at the top of the heap in total music consumption, with 24.5%, over R&B and hip-hop (18.2%), pop (15.7%) and country (8.5%). All other genres — classical, dance/EDM, jazz, Latin, holiday/seasonal, Christian/gospel and children's music — had market shares of under 5% each.
Here are the Top 10 albums of 2015, combining albums and song sales and on-demand audio streams:
1.Adele's "25" (8 million)
2.Taylor Swift's "1989" (3.1 million)
3.Justin Bieber's "Purpose" (2.22 million)
5.The Weeknd's "Beauty Behind the Madness" (2 million)
6.Drake's "If You're Reading This, It's Too Late" (1.9 million)
7.Meghan Trainor's "Title" (1.8 million)
8.Sam Smith's "In the Lonely Hour" (1.7 million)
9.Sam Hunt's "Montevallo" (1.4 million)
10.Fetty Wap's "Fetty Wap" (1.3 million)