With the first quarter of 2010 now completed, the good news for the U.S. music industry is the slowing decline of album sales. And another observation is the emergence of the non-traditional sector as the largest U.S. retail channel, displacing the mass merchants.

The bad news, however, is that for the first time since digital track sales took off in 2003, a quarter has closed with a downward trend. But that decline is mitigated by the Nielsen SoundScan calendar adjustment.

Album sales were down 7.9% to 82 million units, from the 89 million scanned during the corresponding period in 2009, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That's in contrast to the 13.5% decline that occurred in between SoundScan's first quarters in 2009 and 2008.

Meanwhile, track sales declined to 312.4 million units, down nearly 1% from the 315.4 million units scanned last year during the first quarter. (In order to accommodate an apple-to-apple, 13-week comparison, SoundScan, which had a 53-week year in 2009, has eliminated sales from the first week ending Jan. 4, 2009; and in order to maintain a 13-week comparison for all quarters in this year ended its quarter on April 4, 2010).

If Soundscan had make the adjustment differently and cut off the last week of 2009 instead and counted it as the first week of 2010, then sales would still be down .09% to 349.6 million for the period beginning Dec. 28, 2009 through April 4 2010, from the 352.6 million gartered during the period beginning Dec. 29, 2008 through April 5, 2009.

Industry executives ascribe the slowing track sales to a number of reasons, including variable pricing implement at iTunes. While consumers will still buy hit songs for $1.29, it seems that catalog tracks priced at that level are not selling as well as they were at 99 cents.

Meanwhile, industry executives say that album sales have been strengthened by an unusual occurrence -- a robust release schedule in the first quarter. If digital track equivalent albums are added to the mix, then album sales are down 6.1% to 113.1 million units from the 120.6 million copies scanned last year.

Top Sellers

So far in 2010, Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" is the top selling title with nearly 1.65 million scans. The only other album to pass the million mark is Sade's "Soldier of Love," with nearly 1.1 million units.

The top selling digital songs this year are Train's "Hey Soul Sister," with 2 million scans; the Black Eyed Peas' "Imma Be," with nearly 2 million units; and Ke$ha's "Tik Tok," with 1.9 million units. The best selling digital album so far is MTV's "Hope For Haiti" album, with 370,000 scans.

Market Share

Looking at market share for albums, including track equivalents, the Universal Music Group remains the champ, finishing the quarter with a 30.3% share. But that's down from 30.9% in the first quarter of 2009. Also losing market share, the Warner Music Group finished the first quarter of 2010, with 19.2% slice of the market, down from the 20.7% it had in 2009's corresponding period.

On the upswing, the Sony Music Group and EMI picked up market-share gains. Sony Music added two percentage points growing to 27.9%, up from the 26% it had in the first quarter of 2009. EMI almost jumped two percentage points to 10.5 from the 8.8% the company had in the earlier period.

Retail

In examining where album sales occur, the chain category -- which includes Best Buy, Borders and Trans World -- suffered a 33.8% decline to 19 million units in the first quarter as compared to the 28.7 million in scans that category accounted for in the first quarter of 2009.

Also experiencing shrinking market share, mass merchants like Walmart and Target declined 4.1% to 27.7 million, from the 28.7 million units that category scanned in the first quarter of 2009.

On the plus side, non-traditional -- which includes iTunes, Amazon, QVC and concert hall sales -- grew 13.3% to 28.7millon, from the 25.5 million units that category scanned in the corresponding period of 2009.

Also on the upswing, independents posted a 10.3% gain in album sales to a little more than 6.6 million units, up from the 6 million that category scanned last year. But most of that increase can be explained by the shift of smaller chains like Newbury Comics and local chains like Gallery of Sound and Dimples out of the chain category and into the independent segment, which occurred at the start of this year.

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