During the first three quarters of 2015*, album sales plus TEA (track-equivalent albums, whereby 10 tracks equal one album) continued their gradual fall, dipping 6.4 percent to 243.9 million from 260.6 million in the same period in 2014, according to Nielsen Music. While that represents a 16.6 million album drop, it’s actually a significant improvement over the same stretch of 2014, which had a decline of 42 million units. Digital track sales lost nearly 100 million in sales, standing at 756.3 million from 848.5 million last year. Conversely, digital album sales are holding their own, down less than one-third of 1 percent.
Meanwhile, streaming numbers have nearly doubled during the past year. In the first nine months of 2015, streams totaled 232 billion versus 118.1 billion in the same period of 2014. SEA -- stream-equivalent albums, whereby 1,500 streams equal one album sale -- are up 96 percent to 154.6 million units, from 78.8 million in 2014.
Notably, the only genre -- from pop to rock to hip-hop -- that saw a lift in digital track sales was the blues, which rose 5.2 percent.
Taylor Swift’s 1989 remains the year’s top-selling album, with nearly 2.4 million units (including TEA) through the week ending Oct. 1. She also tops the vinyl sales list, with 46,000 units scanned. Ed Sheeran’s x is second with 1.6 million and the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack is third, with 1.3 million. The year’s top-selling track continues to be Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk!” (featuring Bruno Mars) with 5.3 million units, followed by Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” (3.8 million). Individual track sales kept up their steep decline, dropping 10.9 percent to 756.3 million from 848.5 million in the first nine months of 2014. However, digital album sales dipped just 0.3 percent to 77.3 million units.
The three major labels maintained their market-share positions from Q3 2014 and weathered changes of less than one percentage point (Universal and Warner gained while Sony slipped). But that could change in Q4 when albums from Rihanna, One Direction and Justin Bieber -- and a rumored release from Adele -- arrive.
Independents captured about 13.7 percent of the market, but that number goes off a strict definition, only including indies not distributed by the majors. When Billboard calculates, twice yearly, independents' market share solely on ownership, the independent sector accounts for about 35 percent of the market.
For the first time in years, retail chains are down only 7 percent, moving 19.4 million. The big losers are the mass merchants, which have seen sales fall 17.9 percent in the last year to 32.9 million units, from 40 million. Music executives believe this decline can be attributed to a decrease in stores' space allotment for CDs, as well as lost sales due to digital-only releases. Non-traditional record stores -- think Amazon -- continue to shine, actually growing 8.1 percent. Mom and pop record shops were down slightly, to 12.7 million from 13.1 million units. Overall, the CD was down 10 percent, moving 82.6 million. Vinyl sales continued their unstoppable surge, up 32 percent with 8 million sales.
A version of this article was first published in the Oct. 17 issue of Billboard.