If U.S. track sales in 2014 had one theme, it would be "Happy" versus everything else. Pharrell's hit song is the only top 200track of 2014 that's outselling its 2013 counterpart. And it's the only track to have bucked the downward trend in sales that is reshaping the record business.
The top track of 2014 by a wide margin, "Happy" has sold 5.9 million units year-to-date through August 10th, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That's 30.5 percent, or 1.4 million units, more than the 4.5 million units sold at the same point in 2013 by Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines."
This next two tracks have actually fared relatively well. The #2 track of the year, Katy Perry's "Dark Horse," is only 0.6 percent, or 25,000 units, behind its #2 counterpart in 2013, Imagine Dragon's "Radioactive." The #3 track, John Legend's "All of Me," is just 0.8 percent behind its counterpart, "Thrift Shop" by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.
But from #4 onward, last year's top tracks are slaughtering this year's top tracks. Tracks #4 through #10 have sold 22 million units, 13.4 percent fewer tracks than last year's #3 through #10 sold over the same period. Excluding the top three tracks mentioned above, sales of the top 40 tracks of 2014 are down 13.7 percent from a year ago.
The trend exists in the entire top 200. Through August 10th, the top 200 tracks account for 24.4 percent, or 25.5 million units, of this year's decline in units sales (about 105 million units) even though they make up 22.2 percent of total track sales. In other words, the top 200 tracks account for a slightly disproportional amount of this year's decline in track sales. The rest of all track sales -- everything outside of the top 200 -- accounts for slightly smaller proportion of the decline.
The upshot: this year's 12.8-percent decline in track sales is falling mostly -- albeit by a small margin -- on the shoulders of the most popular tracks.
In revenue terms, the top 200 tracks account for about $30.5 million of the $125.5 million decline in sales from track sales. If those tracks' year-over-year decline were proportional to their share of total unit sales, the decline would be around $27.9 million -- a difference of about $2.7 million.
A number of factors could help explain part of the annual sales decline, or add context to a comparison of the top 200 tracks. This year's slate of albums and singles could be resonating with consumers less than last year's releases. And comparing a top track to its counterpart a year earlier doesn't take into account release date. In other words, a track released in March has more time to sell through early August than a track released in June.
Indeed, "Happy" started the year at #68 on the Digital Songs chart and topped the Hot 100 in early March. "Blurred Lines" was released in late March of 2013 and didn't top the Hot 100 until June. So when comparing year-to-date sales, "Happy" has the advantage of 11 additional weeks of sales and an earlier entry to the Hot 100.
In any case, it's clear that what's happening with popular songs is happening with all tracks. Purchases of all types are down. Consumers' embrace of streaming service has started to impact their digital purchasing habits. And it appears digital buyers are getting content with their collections. Current tracks, down 11 percent, are faring a bit better than catalog tracks, down 14 percent.
Breakthrough hits like "Happy" can occasionally buck the trend. They can deliver big sales -- and big revenue -- to a declining download market. But they're outliers. In 2014 so far, "Happy" is the biggest outlier.