Something wonderful is happening in the U.S.
Music sales have posted a year-on-year increase for six weeks in a row, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
In fact, this is the first time since 2004 that U.S. sales have enjoyed a sales gain of this length. In that year, there was a 9-week period where sales were up consecutively over the same weeks in the prior year, lasting from June 14 through August 15. That, of course, occurred in the last year where the U.S. marketplace posted a year-over-year sales gain.
This week, from the period beginning Feb. 14 through the week ending March 27, album sales are up 5% to 38.4 million units from 36.6 million units during the corresponding period last year; while digital track downloads are up 13.6% during that period to 154.9 million to 136.4 million in the corresponding earlier period. Prior to that, for the six-week period from Jan.3 through Feb. 13, U.S. album sales were down 14.9% 32.8 million units from 38.5 million units, while digital track sales were only up 4.2% 159.7 million units, from 153.3 million units.
The most recent six-week period actually produced less track sales than the amount generated in the first six weeks of the year. This is because January is typically the second best-selling month of the year for digital track sales.
Beyond that, digital album sales during the last six weeks are up 25.3% to 11.8 million, from 9.45 million in the corresponding period last year.
"There is no doubt that digital is driving the growth," says Nielsen SoundScan VP of merchant services and emerging growth Chris Muratore. That's good news for the U.S. industry after digital download sales appeared to be stagnating last year, when track sales produced a meager 1% increase after spending most of the year on a weekly basis down from the corresponding week in 2009. Meanwhile, digital album growth rate in the last six weeks is nearly double the 13% increase that 2010 enjoyed for the full year over 2009.
Beyond digital growth, an examination of SoundScan data shows other areas where sales gains are up. For instance, catalog album sales are up 10.7% during the six week period, as opposed to down 5.7% in the first six weeks of this year; and internet CD sellers, mail-order and label direct sales to consumers are up 19.4% versus 10.6% in the earlier period. Part of the sales increase is due to the addition of nearly 1,000 online CD sellers over the last couple of months, according to Muratore.
As stores reduce their CD inventories, and customers move to online shopping, SoundScan has moved to beef up its presence in that sector. Individually, those online sellers may not be big sellers, but collectively they are having an impact on the numbers. "We will continue to expand our measurement to reflect the many different ways music is consumed today and in the future," Muratore said.
Beyond online, the chain category, which has been the store sector losing the most market share over the last decade, also showed some resilience during the six-week period, with album sales dropping only 1.2%, as compared with the first six weeks of the year when that category suffered a 27.5% decline. Also current album sales for the last six weeks were up 0.5% as compared to the first six weeks when that category was down 22.1%.
While SoundScan shows where the sales are gaining, it doesn't explain why. Industry executives contacted for this story are happy sales are up, but there isn't much of a consensus as to what is driving the gain, beyond digital.
"This is the sixth week of year over year sales increases, underscoring both the strong new release schedule and impressive catalog and digital sales," NARM president Jim Donio said in a statement. "The last time we've seen this kind of positive movement over consecutive weeks was nearly seven years ago, and with more key titles coming out in the coming weeks, we remain optimistic."
However, sales and distribution executives aren't so sure that the release schedule has been a factor. Other than Adele's "21," which has scanned over 847,000 units this year and is the best selling album of the year so far, the 2010 release schedule was much stronger in 2009. Lady Antebellum, for example, issued "Need You Now," on Jan 26 and by March 21, it had already scanned 1.5 million units. Also, Sade's "Soldier Of Love," came out on Feb. 9 and by March 21 it had scanned nearly 992,000 units; and Key$ha's "Animal." came out Jan. 5 and scanned nearly 492,000 units.
Moreover, there was stronger sales carryover from the 2009 holiday selling season than in 2010, all of which means that in the first 12 weeks of last year, the top 10 selling albums had scanned 6.57 million units, a nearly 48% increase over the sales of this year's top 10 selling albums, which has scanned 4.45 million to date.
Glassnote president Daniel Glass cites the Grammy show which broadcast Feb. 13, not coincidentally the last day of the sales decline this year, with the following week being the first week of the seven consecutive week sales gains.
"I think the Grammys had a lot to do with it," Glass says. "It was a very good show with amazing music. It put people back in the stores and got them talking about music again." he also said that the "mtvU Woodies Award" show, which was broadcast March 16, also may be helping to drive sales.
But other executives aren't so sure that the Grammy broadcast is the main reason behind the sales gain. Other than Glassnotes' Mumford & Sons and to a lesser degree Justin Bieber, other performers and winners have seen only minor gains for existing albums.
Mumford & Sons' "Sigh No More," as seen its album sales jump from an average of nearly 31,000 units a week in the first six weeks of the year before the broadcast to an average of about 72,000 units a week in the last six weeks to help make the album the second best seller so far this year with about 573,000 units; and 1.2 million since its release.
Meanwhile, Justing Bieber's "Never Say Never Remixes," which came out on Feb. 14, has since scanned a little more than 423,000 units; whilehis "My World 2.0 has seen sales jump from a weekly average of 19,000 units this year in the weeks before the show to more than 33,000 units a week average after the show. The original version of Bieber's "My World" has seen sales jump from its weekly average of 7,000 prior to the show to nearly averaging 12,000 units in the six weeks after the show; and "My World Acoustic" has held steady, averaging 14,000 a week in both periods.
But despite the sales gain by Bieber and Mumford & Sons, there isn't a real sales breakout from the Grammy like Norah Jones did in 2003, when "Come Away With Me," jumped to 621,000 in the week after the show from the 144,000 scans in the week prior to the show.
Sales and distribution executives suggest that a budget catalog sale at Wal-Mart and a catalog sale at Amazon, might be driving the catalog sales increase over the last five weeks.
Tommy boy chairman Tom Silverman throws this thought in the mix: "I wonder if all the new ways of exposing music through the internet is finally kicking in and actually inspiring people to buy more music," he says. Or better yet, "Maybe we are finally seeing the bottom -- wouldn't that be something."