People are still buying albums -- millions of them each week -- but new releases are accounting for a smaller percentage of those sales.
Looking at the last five years of album sales, current release sales have fallen 38.1% while catalog sales have dropped 22.4%, according to Billboard analysis of Nielsen SoundScan. This disparity in rates of decline has meant catalog sales account for a greater share of total sales than five years ago.
The opposite trend is occurring with track sales. Through July 6th, catalog titles accounted for 52.9% of total U.S. track sales. Through the same week in 2009, catalog had a 61.8% share. One possible interpretation: digital consumers believe their collections have an adequate amount of older songs but are still interested in buying new songs.
These trends have real implications throughout the music industry. Albums are increasingly the domain of older songs by older artists, while tracks are increasingly the domain of new songs by younger artists.
These trends have dollar-and-cents implications. Much of the conversation about album sales revolves around new releases and the ability of labels -- especially smaller labels -- to recoup their investments. The statement "It's more difficult to put out new albums because album sales have dropped 31% in the last five years" is factually wrong. It's worse: new album sales have fallen 38%, not 31%. In other words, it's harder than you might think to recoup expenses through album sales.
And while catalog sales help labels of all sizes, some labels get more from catalog than other labels. Visit a mass merchant such as Target and you'll see displays with low-cost, high-value compilations, usually from heritage acts that recouped their expenses long ago. What you won't see are many back catalog titles. Ten years ago, when more shelf space was given to CDs, mass merchants carried far more catalog titles and were more likely to carry independent releases. Now, a store's stock is more likely to have a modest collection of current releases and "best of" titles.