Music News

Album sales plummet to lowest total in decades

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Bad times just got worse. During the week ended May 30, the U.S. music industry sold a total of 4.98 million albums, according to Nielsen Soundscan.

An interior view of the Criminal Records store in Toronto December 1, 2009. REUTERS/Terri Coles

That figure, which includes new and catalog releases, represents the fewest albums sold in one week since Soundscan began compiling this data in 1994.

By comparison, album sales for the week ended May 31, 2009, totaled 5.76 million. The highest one-week tally recorded during the Soundscan era is 45.4 million albums, in late December 2000.

This past week’s record low comes as the major record companies continue to reckon with a decade-long decline in sales, and as other prominent sectors of the industry, such as the touring business, go through sea changes of their own.

While there’s no exact way to compare the latest total against pre-Soundscan tallies, Billboard estimates that weekly album sales volume could, in fact, be at its lowest point since the early 1970s.

“We think this is the lowest week ever, or at least of the Soundscan era,” says Universal Music Group Distribution president Jim Urie.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, album shipments in 1973 totaled 388.2 million units, an average of 7.47 million per week. Because Soundscan measures albums sold (i.e. scanned) and not albums shipped, Billboard looked at the relationship between annual album shipments, as measured by the RIAA, and annual albums sold, as compiled by Soundscan, for the years 1992-2009. During that period, shipments exceeded scans by an average of 30 percent.

By applying that 30 percent figure to the 1973 RIAA album shipment data, Billboard estimates that weekly album sales volume for that year may have totaled about 5.5 million units. That exceeds this past week’s tally by 600,000 copies. (The RIAA began keeping figures on album shipments in 1973.)

Veteran sales executives caution against putting too much stock into pre-Soundscan record-keeping. “Who the hell knows what weekly sales were back then,” says Lou Dennis, who retired as Warner Bros. Records head of sales in 1996.

Whatever the benchmark, industry executives agree that this week’s album sales total of 4.98 million units is “pretty scary,” in the words of Bruce Ogilvie, CEO of leading music wholesaler Super D.

Digital track sales for the week totaled 21.7 million, and are distinct from the album sales tally.

UMGD’s Urie cites this week’s album total as “all the more reason why everyone in the industry should be focused on getting the U.S. Congress to introduce legislation that makes the Internet service providers our allies in fighting piracy. Piracy is getting worse and worse, and the government needs to focus on that.”

Like Ogilvie, Urie thinks that the light release schedule is the main reason for the drop-off. “This week is likely a major aberration, with no big new releases out,” he says. “June will be big. Look at all the big records coming out, including Sara McLachlan, Drake, Miley Cyrus, Eminem and Jack Johnson.”