Has digital music killed the album?

has digital music killed the albumAfter many years of discussion – and more than a few of straight-up panic-mongering and uncertain, uneasy optimism and anywhere in between – it looks as if the collective music industry’s worst fears about the evolution of the digital market are coming true. Overall album sales are down, leading some to believe that digital music has finally managed to finish off the format… and perhaps by accident.

Paid Content compared music sales data from both sides of the Atlantic and found that, in both the US and UK, album sales are down, falling 3.2 percent in the United States and a worrying 13.8 percent in the United Kingdom when compared with the previous year. Oddly enough, this is bad news hidden amongst a lot of really good news in each report: On both reports, overall music sales are rising in 2012 compared with the same period of 2011, in some cases significantly. US digital track sales have risen 5.6 percent when comparing Q2 2012 to Q2 2011, and digital album sales are up 13.7 percent in the same comparison period; vinyl album sales in the US are also up in Q2 2012, rising 14.2 percent, suggesting that what’s actually happening to albums is a wholescale collapse of the CD market.

That story seems to be paralleled with what’s happening in the United Kingdom, with the British Phonographic Industry reporting that the digital album market is showing growth of 15.0% in Q2 and 17.3% for the year-to-date. BPI Chief Executive Geoff Taylor is quoted in the official PR surrounding the report as saying that, “We’ve had another solid quarter of digital growth in sales volumes – both in albums and on singles, where the top 10 were exclusively sold as digital downloads.” He goes on to point out that “Album unit sales are down quite significantly year-on-year, but it’s important to remember that these unit sales figures do not take into account the growing importance of music streaming and subscription services,” and that, perhaps, may point out why the album is ultimately in trouble.

The success of streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora offers a “best of both worlds” for users, giving them the chance to have the perpetual automated play of a radio station while also allowing the ability to limit/remove music that isn’t to their taste that the “manual” play of albums, or simply creating play lists/mix tapes/whatever has to offer, and all without requiring the purchase of any music. While overall digital sales may be increasing, what seems to be happening is that the music purchasing audience is fragmenting between digital and vinyl purchases, leaving a more casual audience, who’d previously been purchasing CDs, elsewhere – If subscription services offer them a cheaper, easier way to listen to the music they want without having to actually buy it, then why should they continue to purchase?

Overall music sales may be up now, but the drop in overall album sales feels like an outlier that deserves further attention. That might be the way overall sales end up going in years to come.