The improvement stems from large increases in streaming activity, which drove music consumption in the United States up 14 percent in the first quarter, according to Nielsen Music. Notably, the streaming gains were able to cover any losses in physical and digital sales.
Nielsen measures music consumption in total equivalent albums, a metric that coverts track sales and streams into albums.
Total streams increased 90.6 percent in the quarter. Video streams jumped 109.9 percent to 35.84 billion. Audio streams rose 71.4 percent to 29.49 billion. Total streams accounted for 33 percent of total equivalent albums, up from 19.7 percent in the first quarter of 2014. (All key streaming services other than Pandora are included in Nielsen's streaming numbers.)
Digital sales fell slightly. Track sales fell 10.9 percent and digital album sales rose 2.8 percent. Total digital sales, measured as digital album equivalents, fell 4.4 percent and accounted for 42.8 percent of total equivalent albums, down from 60 percent a year earlier.
Physical albums also fell. They had a modest decline of 5.6 percent and accounted for 24.2 percent of total equivalent albums, down from 29.3 percent in the prior-year period.
The album format, increasingly an anachronism in the streaming and playlist era, held up well. Total album sales fell just 1.8 percent. Physical album sales totaled 32 million while digital albums were 28.6 million.
The first quarter's 14-percent jump in total equivalent albums is much larger than the 3.7-percent Nielsen tracked for 2014. First-quarter total equivalent albums were 132 million. At that rate, there could be 527.9 million total equivalent albums in 2015, a big jump from last year's total of 326 million.