Total U.S. music shipments to retail improved 2% in 2004, reversing four straight years of industry declines, the Recording Industry Assn. of America reports.

NEW YORK -- Total U.S. music shipments to retail improved 2% in 2004, reversing four straight years of industry declines, the Recording Industry Assn. of America reports.

Overall CD shipments to physical retail stores, record clubs, online merchants and other specialty outlets were up 2.8% to 766.9 million units. Music video was up 65% to 32.7 million units. The value of those retail shipments was also up: CD shipments improved 1.9% to $11.4 billion, while music video grew 51.8% to $607 million.

Shipments to physical retail, minus online and record clubs, were up more dramatically. CD units rose 5.3% to 642 million units. Music DVD shipments to physical retail rose 66% to 29 million units.

The improved shipment data reflect a stabilization in album sales in 2004. In a 52-week comparison with 2003, album sales improved 1.6% to 666.7 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That marked the first upward trend in four years.

However, total unit shipment levels -- which comprise all physical formats, including CDs, cassettes, LPs and video -- remain at the lowest level in decade, the RIAA says. In 1994, the industry shipped 1.12 billion total units to retail, vs. 2004's 814 million units. Total CD shipments haven't been this low since 1995, when 722 million units were sent to retail -- and at that time, the industry was also shipping 272 million cassette album units, vs. 5.2 million last year.

Cassette unit shipments are down 70% from 2003 and push closer to the brink of extinction. Meanwhile, LP shipments, which had shown modest growth in the late 1990s, continued a three-year skid, falling 12% to 1.3 million units -- a new 10-year low for the configuration.

The RIAA maintains that piracy remains a problem. The trade group points out that the top 100 albums -- which are often the most heavily pirated -- sold 194.9 million units in 1999, compared to 153.3 million in 2004, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

"Piracy, online and on the street, continues to plague the music community and its partners in the technology sector," RIAA chairman/CEO Mitch Bainwol says in a statement. "Until the playing field is balanced, the legitimate online music business cannot truly flourish, and investment in new art will not reach its potential."

The industry's biggest positive trend -- sales via digital distribution -- was not factored into the RIAA shipment figures. More than 140 million digital tracks and 5.5 million digital albums were sold last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan.