The Music Business Welcomes the Future, a Decade Behind Schedule
It took more than a decade. But the music industry’s sales numbers are finally starting to make sense to the kind of people who are reading this story right now: For the first time ever, the labels’ digital sales have surpassed CDs and vinyl.
But just barely: Digital sales accounted for 50.3 percent of all U.S. music purchases last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
And if you want to caveat that number, that’s easy to do: For starters, the Nielsen number refers to unit sales, not revenue. So the music company’s books might still show that analog sales make more money for them. And recall stunts like Amazon’s Lady Gaga almost-giveaway last spring, when it sold nearly half a million albums at 99 cents a pop.
Still, the big picture finally resembles the one we’ve been hearing about since Napster showed up in 1999, or at least since Apple started selling music via iTunes in 2003: One day, files would beat discs.
The milestone happens to have occurred in the same year that music sales finally ticked up again. You can pick a couple different metrics to illustrate the rise, but they’re all single-digit increases. The important point is they’re not decreases.
That could simply be a one-off, and perhaps the result of lots of people buying Adele songs — Sony’s new star sold more albums than anyone has done since 2004 — or there could be a larger change afoot. Won’t know about that for a while.
But an industry that hasn’t had good news since the Backstreet Boys were big can afford to be patient.