The recorded music market is suddenly looking tired. Poor numbers out of France follow declining digital sales in the U.S. and weak first-quarter numbers in Japan.

French recorded music industry group SNEP has revealed that total revenues were down 6.7% in the first four months of the year. A 7.3% decline in physical revenue combined with a 5.2% decline in digital revenue. This period marks the first time the French market has seen a decline in digital revenues, according to SNEP.

SNEP attributes nearly all the digital revenue decline to “a special operation” by a major label that was not renewed in 2013 and a temporary cessation of YouTube payments following a deal with SACEM. In the absence of these two factors, the year-over-year decline in digital revenues would have been 100,000 Euros, or 0.3% of digital revenue, according to SNEP.

The adjusted digital revenue figure is still troubling, however. A 0.3% decline in digital revenue means the French market would not have grown in the first four months even without the two extraordinary items. Digital revenue needs to grow at a healthy, steady rate if physical losses are to be counterbalanced. (It should be noted that SNEP’s numbers leave out synchronization revenue, which grew 32.9% in 2012, according to the IFPI.)
The lack of growth in subscription revenues is also troubling. Audio subscription revenue rose only 2.1%, a frightening low number given the popularity of subscription services (France is the home country of Deezer and also has Spotify, Rdio, Music Unlimited and Xbox Music) and the industry's reliance on subscription revenue for growth.
Not all countries are in the same situation. Take developing markets like India and Brazil. Their combinations of relatively small physical markets and nascent digital markets will result in digital-lead growth in coming years. Many countries received iTunes just within the last two years. But France and other major markets, with their larger physical markets and slow or negative digital growth, shouldn't take past growth for granted. 

The United States is stumbling a bit in the first five months of the year. As Billboard noted last week, U.S. digital download purchases have weakened throughout the year. Track sales are down 2.7% year-over-year through May 26. Digital album sales are up 7.9% but the rate of growth has slowed considerably since the first few months of 2013. CD sales are down a routine 14% through May 26. Performance royalties and subscription-related revenues are likely to be higher.

The Japanese market has also seen declines. In the first quarter, Japan’s physical music market declined 8% in value (after rising 9% in 2012) and its digital market dropped 30% in value. Because Japan's physical market is 5.5 times the size of its digital market, the physical decline easily overshadows the digital decline.
Japan is a unique market because ringtones and other mobile content account for a large share of digital revenue. Ringtones and ringback tones dropped 55% and 31% in the first quarter, respectively. Internet downloads and subscriptions, relatively new to the market, are growing. Track downloads rose 36% while digital albums increased 59%. Subscription revenue grew from nothing to $4.1 million.
Driven by growth in digital sales and performance royalties, the global recorded music market rose 0.2% in 2012. These three examples do not mean the global market is headed downward in 2013. But they do show digital-led growth may not be possible everywhere.