After six years that were dominated by track and ringtones sales, attention is now shifting to the digital album. Last week, iTunes launched the iTunes LP, a deluxe digital, interactive album. New releases by Jay-Z and Dave Matthews Band have been released in both standard and iTunes LP versions, and a small number of catalog titles were available for the format's launch. Amazon.com is continuing to push the album format through its daily MP3 album specials and monthly "50 albums for $5" sales. And labels, unhappy with the prospects of selling one song at a time, are trying to breathe new life into the album bundle.

As its competitors increase their efforts to sell digital albums, eMusic is eminding the marketplace of its success in the format. The album format, according to numbers released by the company today, accounted for 72% of the indie-slanted download store's worldwide sales over the last year. Since the introduction of album pricing in June 2009, which coincided with the debut of Sony Music catalog titles at the store, album sales have risen to 75% of total sales. Since 2006, the album format has accounted for 69% of eMusic's global sales.

"While Apple and their major label suppliers continue to figure out how to make albums more appealing to music buyers, eMusic customers already purchase more albums than single tracks," said Danny Stein, eMusic president and CEO. "Although the majority of our customers are over the age of 25, we encourage them to buy more music with subscription and album pricing and more musical context than any other service."

Why is eMusic raising this particular issue at this time? There is new competition in eMusic's main area of strength, so the company is highlighting its success with albums to labels, artists and subscribers. From its editorial to its charts, the album is always front and center at eMusic. That was not always the case elsewhere. Digital tracks are more prominent - and encouraged - at stores like iTunes and Amazon.com. At eMusic, charts are only for albums, artists, labels and composers. The individual track is for the less serious music fan, a way to use up a credit or two before they expire.

American customers' preference for tracks over albums can be seen in U.S. sales numbers. According to Nielsen Soundscan, 53,000 digital albums and 630,000 digital tracks have been sold through September 12. Individual tracks have accounted for 34% more track sales than have been sold through albums this year (at 12 tracks per album). But there may be more life left in the format called everything from beleaguered to outright dead. Sales of digital albums are up 17% year-over-year while track sales are up only 12%.

Digital consumers have not always been given a strong reason to buy an album instead of a few tracks. Now the slowing in track sales and the bleak financial realities of a singles-driven world has turned attention to the album format - or, at the very least, new ways of bundling and selling content. Albums sales may not return to their pre-digital days of glory, but increased competition for album buyers' dollars will lead to the type of innovations (whether it's content, pricing or album-related technologies) that will offer fans better options and possibly nudge unit sales upwards as well. In other words, it's a good time to be an album buyer.

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboardbiz

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