In September, the record industry came as close to a victory is it’s going to get in 2009. Year over year album sales in the month were down only 5.9%, according to Billboard analysis of Nielsen SoundScan data. (For these purposes, September is defined as the four-week period starting August 31 and ending September 27.) September was the first month since April and only the second in 2009 with a single-digit decline in unit album sales. Year to date, album sales are down 13.7% versus 2008 and 23.9% versus 2007.

Track Equivalent Albums (TEAs) were down 3.8% in September. (TEAs combined album sales with digital track sales by dividing the latter by ten. So one album and ten tracks equal two TEAs.) If track sales had not come to a crawl at the midpoint of the year, TEAs would have been flat versus September 2008. But track sales were up only 3.8% year over year in September. They would have needed to increase by an additional 16.4% in September 2009 for TEAs to have matched those in September 2008.

September benefitted from some strong releases. Last year, Metallica’s Death Magnetic, Young Jeezy’s Recession and Ne-Yo’s Year of the Gentlemen were the only releases to top 100,000 units in a week. This year, releases by Pearl Jam, Jay-Z, Muse, Kid Cudi, Whitney Houston, Miley Cyrus and Trey Songz all topped 100,000.

Q3, too, was quite an improvement over the previous quarter. In Q3, album sales were down 11.4% versus Q3 2008 and 23.2% versus Q3 2007. Q2 albums sales were down 15.9% versus Q2 2008 and 25.4% versus Q2 2007.

In terms of value, September’s TEAs were probably very close to September 2008’s TEAs. Because of higher prices captured through variable pricing – which was introduced in May of this year – the value of tracks sold in September probably came very close to matching the value of tracks sold during the month last year. Selling tracks at $1.29 apiece helped close the gap. Unit sales are down but higher wholesale prices mean more revenue is generated by each sale. It’s not inconceivable that the value of September’s TEAs was within a few percentage points of last year’s TEA value.

A single-digit album decline for September stands is quite impressive in light of sluggish digital sales this year. After strong growth in earlier years, digital has slowed to a crawl. Ringtone sales are down, digital track sales are barely up versus weekly sales in 2008 and online services are floundering. The slowdown isn’t a fleeting trend, it’s for real.

Earlier this month, Billboard posted an analysis of 2009's digital slowdown. And yesterday, The Orchard referenced less-than-expected digital growth in 2009 in the press release about its decision to cut 20% of staff and implement other cost-savings measures.