Some 2009 album numbers from a Nielsen presentation at NARM have received a lot of attention, but they deserve a point of clarification. These album sales statistics, reported at Digital Music News, were not misleading, but it’s worth properly understanding Nielsen’s numbers.

Here’s how Nielsen’s figures were reported:

A total of 98,000 albums were released in 2009, and just a handful crossed the million-mark. Perhaps more sobering, just 2.1 percent managed to cross the 5,000-mark, a group that made up 91 percent of total sales.

The numbers are enough to make you stop and think. Only 2.1% of the 98,000 albums released in 2009 – or about 2,050 unique titles – reached a threshold one assumes is within reach of just about any artist. If the Internet makes it so easy to reach people and sell digital goods, why are so few titles reaching this threshold?

To be clear, these numbers refer to the percent of the new releases released in the calendar year 2009 that sold more than 5,000 units. Far more titles – new releases, catalog titles – sold over 5,000 units last year. As a point of comparison, over 10,000 titles sold over 5,000 units in 2008, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Many new titles are not done selling when Nielsen counts sales at the end of the year. While a title released in January has nearly twelve months of sales behind it when the calendar year ends, a title released in September, for example, has fewer than five months of sales history at the end of the year. Because of these timing issues, many of 2009’s new releases will continue to sell into 2010 and will eventually pass that 5,000 mark (if they have not already done so). So, in reality, more than 2.1% of 2009’s new releases have passed the 5,000 mark even though they didn’t do so by January 3 (the end of SoundScan’s 2009 sales year).