Album Sales Hit New Weekly Low in U.S. -- But There Is a Bright Spot

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As record stores were forced to close up shop last week due to coronavirus concerns, and music fans became preoccupied with social distancing and quarantine, U.S. album sales hit a new weekly low.

In the week ending March 19, overall album sales fell 29% to 1.52 million, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. That number combines sales of all formats of albums: digital albums, CDs, vinyl LPs, cassettes and so forth.

1.52 million is the smallest number of albums sold in a week since the firm began tracking music sales in 1991. The previous Nielsen/MRC Data-era low for overall album sales came only earlier this year, when 1.65 million were sold in the week ending Jan. 16.

And Billboard estimates 1.52 million is perhaps the smallest sum for total weekly album sales since albums began to take off as a format in the mid-1960s.

Weekly Physical Album Sales Dip Below 1 Million: Further, physical album sales (CDs, vinyl LPs and cassettes, etc.) declined by 36% in the week ending March 19, falling to just 979,000 copies sold -- the first time weekly physical album sales fell below 1 million in the Nielsen Music/MRC Data era.

The previous low-water mark for weekly physical album sales (since 1991) came less than a year ago, when 1.05 million were sold in the week ending July 11, 2019. Again, weekly physical album sales likely have not been this low since the mid-1960s.

Fans Continue to Favor Streaming Over Album Purchases: Album sales have been on the decline for years, since their heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it was common for more than 10 million albums to be sold in a single week.

Music of course is still incredibly popular -- as are albums (and vinyl albums, but more on that in a moment). However, more and more fans have moved away from buying individual albums and instead choose to enjoy music and albums through streaming services such as Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube. There, a customer can either subscribe to an all-you-can-listen service for one monthly fee, or opt to listen to music without a subscription (and listen to advertisements in-between songs).

In 2019, overall album sales totaled 112.75 million (down 18.7% compared to 2018). It was the lowest year for album sales in the Nielsen Music/MRC Data era, and the fourth year in a row where album sales fell by at least 10%. So far in 2020, album sales stand at 21.52 million (down 8.3% year-to-date), while physical album sales stand at 14.74 million sold (up 1.9% -- buoyed by strong vinyl album sales).

Comparatively, in 2019, overall on-demand streams of songs (audio and video combined) grew by 29.3%, surpassing the 1 trillion mark for the first time in a calendar year. In total for 2019, there were 1.147 trillion on-demand song streams registered. In 2020, on-demand streams of songs total 267.75 billion (up 19.7% year-to-date).

But Vinyl Album Sales Continue to Shine: Though overall album sales are tumbling, and streaming continues to go through the roof, the once nearly-dead vinyl album format continues to be a bright spot in an otherwise bleak album sales picture.

2019 marked the 14th consecutive year of growth for vinyl album sales, climbing to 18.84 million sold (up 14.5% compared to 2018). In fact, vinyl LP sales accounted for 16.7% of all album sales in 2019, and an incredible 25.6% of physical album sales (a Nielsen Music/MRC Data-era record share for the format).

So far in 2020, total vinyl album sales stand at 4.88 million (up 42.2% year-to-date). Further, vinyl album sales comprise 22.6% of all albums sold in 2020, and 33% of all physical albums sold.

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