Business Matters: If Big Radio Had Pandora's Royalty Rate, It Would Owe Billions
Business Matters: If Big Radio Had Pandora's Royalty Rate, It Would Owe Billions

Digital tracks and album sales set records last week, but digital sales were decidedly more mixed in the month of December.

Digital track sales set a single-week record of 55.8 million for week ending December 30, 2012, according to Nielsen SoundScan, beating the previous record of 47.7 million set the week ending December 28, 2008. Fueled by gift card redemptions, and aided by the occasional heavy discounting, track sales rose 119% over the previous week to 55.74 million units, a record for a single week.

Digital album sales increased 61% over the previous week to a single-week record of 4.52 million units. The previous best was 3.47 million units the week ending January 1, 2012.

Some low sale prices helped a bit. Amazon's well-timed sale of select digital albums helped send Bob Marley's "Legend" collection -- priced at just 99 cents for the 29-song expanded version -- soaring to 34,000 units from 1,000 units a week earlier. The Carpenters' "Singles 1969-81" and Simon & Garfunkel's "Best of Simon & Garfunkel" both jumped to 23,000 digital units from next to nothing in prior weeks.

Although the week's sales in tracks and digital albums were also big improvements over the previous year, there's a catch. The final week of 2012, as measured by SoundScan, included Christmas Day and all the purchases that come with it. The prior Christmas Day, a Sunday, fell on the last day of the second-to-last week of the year. In other words, a year-to-year comparison does not compare two weeks that both contain Christmas day.

When viewed on a longer time frame, digital sales in December 2012 had a mixed performance. Track sales for the last two weeks of the year were down 4.1% compared to the same period in 2011 while digital album sales were up 9.4%. This two-week period covers Christmas in both years and gives a more accurate view of the annual increase than a one-week sales period. Over the last four weeks of 2012, track sales were down 1.2% while digital album sales were up 8.3%.

Album Sales Slightly Down, Digital LP Sales Up 15% So Far in 2012: SoundScan

When boiled down to a track-equivalent album metric, the last four weeks of December 2012 beat the prior-year period 24.59 million units to 23.84 million units, a margin of 3.2%.

That small gain may stand out more if not for all the other gains being made in digital music. Digital subscription services continued to grow and improve their products in 2012. Internet and satellite radio have become a significant amount of money for rights holders. And online video continues to grow and influence chart positions.

Digital downloads are still the workhorse of the digital music market, though, and both tracks and albums finished the year in positive territory. The 5.1% gain in track sales and 14.1% gain in album sales in 2012 is the equivalent to a 21-million unit gain in digital albums somewhere (rough ballpark) around $200 million in consumer spending.