Fun with year-end sales numbers: Death to the ‘80s, indies rule and rap takes a step forward

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The year-end sales numbers released this week by Nielsen SoundScan contained the usual grim news for the music biz. Album sales once again declined in double-digit fashion, but that was fully expected. Perhaps more surprising and cringe-inducing was the drastic slowdown in growth in the digital sector, as sales of individual songs grew just 1% in 2010, compared to a 28% splurge just two years ago.

But with the bigger industry picture having been covered earlier this week on these digital, tree-friendly pages, Pop & Hiss can further explore the seven-page bonanza of year-end SoundScan stats. So relax, stream your favorite album you downloaded (at no cost) in 2010, and read on.


The headline: Vinyl Sales Hit a New High With 2.8 Million Sold
The context: Sales of LP albums have been a niche bright spot for the industry, but let’s put the emphasis on the word niche. In 10 weeks, Taylor Swift’s ‘Speak Now’ outsold the entire vinyl industry, moving 2.9 million copies since its release. That’s not to write off the success of the format. Vinyl sales were indeed up 14% in 2010 compared to 2009 and managed to account for 1% of all album sales. The real story isn’t that vinyl is up in a down market, but rather that vinyl is providing an edge to mom-and-pop independent retailers. SounndScan notes that overall album sales at indie stores grew two percentage points to 8% in 2010, and the artists dotting the top of the vinyl sales chart are the ones that shops like Amoeba Music hit out of the park. The Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’ sold 19,000 vinyl LPs, the Black Keys’ ‘Brothers’ was close behind with just more than 18,000 LPs, and other artists in the top 10 included Vampire Weekend, the National, Beach House and the xx.

The headline: Overall Album Sales Were Down 12.7% in 2010
The context: The double-digit dip in overall album sales is now an early January tradition as dependable as the Rose Parade. The 12.7% number matches that of 2009, and album sales in 2008 and 2007 were down 14% and 15%, respectively. Yet the overall number includes all formats, from the CD to the digital album to the LP, and doesn’t quite describe just how quickly the CD format is dying. So if current, non-catalog CDs are broken out, the format took a 16.2% hit in 2010. As for catalog CDs, the market fell 23.4%. In 2009, sales of the non-catalog physical CD shot down 20.7%, and the catalog offerings dipped 14.1%.

The headline: Mass Merchants Continue to Dominate Music Sales
The context: It’s no sticker-shock that the likes of Wal-Mart and Target account for the majority of music purchases, as 33% of all albums sold we done so at mass merchants. Chain outlets such as Best Buy accounted for 23% of all album purchases. As noted earlier, sales at indie stores were up. So there’s some good news/bad news here, essentially. In 2009, chain outlets accounted for 29% of all music purchases. The drastic drop would be a cut-down on floor space for music big box retailers, which Best Buy already announced would be a shrinking market for the company.

That’s bad news for major labels, who count on impulse purchases of superstars at the likes of a Best Buy. Although perhaps the money saved on big box retail promotions can be targeted elsewhere. The death of the indie store was used often by the media for cheap headlines, but the fact remains that the surviving stores have become destinations, and will continue to do so as the mass retailers wave bye-bye to the CD.

Wal-Mart has also been trimming space for CDs, and mass merchants saw a 3% decline in album sales over 2009. One stratum not reported on SoundScan’s 2009 report that appears this year is the all-important stat that 26% of all albums were purchased via a digital retailer. If digital sales aren’t rising at as fast a rate as industry observers hoped, it’s still clear that online is where the majority of music purchases will be made, perhaps as early as this year. Already, digital services amassed 86 million albums sold in 2010, whereas mass merchants stood at 108 million.

The Headline: So Ya Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star? Start Rapping or Go Country
The context: SoundScan’s year-end report doesn’t specify which artists are tagged ‘alternative’ versus ‘rock,’ but the news wasn’t good for either, so it doesn’t really matter. Sales of rock albums dropped 15%, and sales of alternative albums dipped 21%. In fact, there’s nothing even resembling a rock ‘n’ roll artist on the final top-10 tally of the bestselling physical CDs (and don’t tell me Justin Bieber resembles a rock artist). The only genre to see an increase in sales was rap, and that no doubt has something to do with Eminem’s ‘Recovery’ being the year’s top-selling album (3.4 million).

The Land of Swift didn’t fare too bad, as country sales dropped 5%, helped no doubt by the fact that sales of Swift’s ‘Speak Now’ and Lady Antebellum’s ‘Need You Now’ each sold about 3 million copies. If you’re looking for rock ‘n’ roll to have led anything, you can find Train’s ‘Hey, Soul Sister’ atop the top-selling digital-track songs tally, having sold more than 4.2 million downloads. Although it’s debatable whether ‘Hey, Soul Sister’ is even rock, but SoundScan doesn’t have a genre for ‘Easy-to-Ignore Balmy Songs to Play at Kohl’s.’

The headline: ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ That the ‘80s Are Back!’ Right?
The context: Hey, trend watchers, there’s a nifty little Nielsen chart that compiles a list of the top-selling digital-track sales by decade -- it tallies sales of songs that were recorded during a specific decade. No surprise that the 2000s were tops, with 743,000 digital tracks sold in 2010. The ‘90s fared surprisingly well, with 85,000 digital tracks sold, perhaps helped by comebacks from the likes of No Doubt, Blink-182 and Soundgarden. The Beatles’ digital offerings were likely released too late to make a significant impact on music sold that was recorded during the ‘60s, which stood at 16.9 million.

Yet perhaps it’s time dreaded ‘80s snyth pop can finally go away and twentysomething musicians can stop fiddling with vintage keyboard sounds. So everyone, are we done attempting to argue that Hall & Oates were something brilliant? And can we finally stop trotting out new editions of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ ’? The public appears to be on my side. Sales of music recorded during the ‘80s dropped 21% in 2010, down from 49,000 to 38,000.

--Todd Martens


- On the pop charts: Online music growth slows, but Eminem, Taylor Swift survive unharmed

Images: Journey (promotional shot, unknown photographer); Eminem (EPA Music); Amoeba Music Hollywood (Amoeba)