Total U.S. music sales slipped just 1.3% in the first quarter from the same period a year earlier, thanks to a surge in sales during six of the last seven weeks of the quarter.
The relatively modest decline marked a sharp improvement from a 6.1% year-on-year sales decline in the first quarter of 2010.
Album sales for the quarter ending on April 3, including track-equivalent albums (whereby 10 digital tracks equals one album), are down to 111.8 million units from 113.2 million in the corresponding period last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan. In contrast, last year at this time, albums and track equivalents were down 6.1% from 120.6 million units at the end of the first quarter in 2009.
The slowing decline is due to a surge in digital sales, with tracks showing an 8.6% gain in the first quarter to 339.1 million units from 312.4 million units in the first quarter of last year. That gain is contrasted by the 1.1% gain that the configuration posted for all of last year, and is even more dramatic when compared with how tracks performed in the first quarter of 2010 versus 2009, when the configuration was down 0.9%, or nearly 1%, from the latter year's first-quarter total of 315 million track scans.
Moreover, digital album sales were up 14.9% to 25.1 million units, from the 21.8 million units posted in the first quarter of 2010. While that's less than the 16% increase posted for the first quarter of 2010 -- from the 18.8 million units scanned in the corresponding period in 2009 -- weekly digital album sales have already passed the 2 million unit mark five times this year, as compared to three weeks for all last year.
The surge in digital album scans has slowed the decline for the overall album configuration, with U.S. sales at 77.8 million units, down 5% from the nearly 82 million units in the first quarter of 2010. As part of that, the CD album, which has been declining at an 18%-20% clip over the last few years, also slowed to a 12.8% decline in the first quarter. Again, that was due to a 4.8% decline in CD sales the last seven weeks of this year's first quarter, versus a 22.1% decline in the first six weeks.
The top selling digital album so far this year is Adele's "21," with scans of 456,000 units, which is almost half the 942,000 total units the album has racked up as the best-selling album this year so far.
The best-selling digital song for the quarter, Cee-Lo's "F--- You (Forget You)," scanned 2.15 million units, beating out Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," which scanned 2.11 million units.
In album market share (including TEA), Universal Music Group's 29.3% barely held off a surging Sony Music Entertainment's 29.15%.
Look for further analysis of the first-quarter figures in this week's Billboard magazine, available Friday.