Any way you look at it, the album format is not dead. Relative to individual track sales, album sales are still dominant, important and necessary to record labels and publishers. Which is why these graphs on the decline of the album format at tech blog Ars Technica are so surprising and misleading.
According to the post, the death of the CD is illustrated by the difference in unit sales of tracks and digital albums. For these graphs, the report uses RIAA data for 2009 music shipments and lines up the number of tracks sold in 2009 next to the number of digital albums sold. To no surprise, the tracks line dwarfs the digital album line. More than 15 times more digital tracks were sold in 2009 than digital albums, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
But, two very important things were ignored in this analysis.
– Digital albums actually account for 44% of digital tracks
First, when viewed in terms of either total tracks or revenue, digital albums fared far better than is portrayed in the graphs. At an average of 12 tracks per unit, digital albums actually accounted for 44% of the digital tracks sold in the U.S. in 2009, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The margin was about the same In terms of revenue – 40% from digital albums and 60% from individual tracks.
– CDs were omitted, skewing the results
Most albums are purchased in CD format, something Ars Technica entirely omitted from its analysis. To leave out CDs is to woefully ignore the majority of revenue in recorded music. In terms of total tracks sold, the CD format accounts for more tracks that the sale of individual digital tracks. Actually, it’s not even close. At an average of 12 tracks per album (including CD, LP and digital album), according to Nielsen SoundScan figures, the album format accounts for 284% more tracks than digital track sales – 4.59 billion to 1.19 billion. In terms of revenue, Billboard estimates the album format accounted for 336% more trade revenue than individual track sales — $3.65 billion to $837 million.
The post also compares TuneCore’s 2009 streams to track and digital album sales. In doing so, this opens numerous problems. First, there is no way of knowing what percent of those streams came from a person listening to an entire album versus just a song or two. Second, the revenue generated by a single stream pales in comparison to that generated by either a track or album sale. And it’s revenue, not units, that really matter in these discussions. Lastly, comparing TuneCore’s tracks to digital albums falls into the same mistake seen with Ars Technica’s use of RIAA data.
If the album is dying anywhere, it’s in the world of illegal downloads, where single track downloads rule. “Because most music thievery is traditional P2P,” says Eric Garland of BigChampagne, “the song is the currency.” In the P2P world, he explains, the nature of the technology makes acquiring tracks far easier than amassing all an album’s tracks. Shared folders contain individual files, and P2P services index individual files. Acquiring an entire album through P2P requires spending the time to locate and download each of its individual tracks. Because of this dynamic, people tend to cherry pick a few songs. On average, says Garland, P2P users will download just two of an album’s tracks.
BitTorrent, on the other hand, is better suited for albums. The technology, used at BitTorrent tracker sites like The Pirate Bay, requires a lot more work and is better for distributing large files. As a result, BitTorrent is popular for downloading movies and television shows. Even when you consider the number of tracks included in albums acquired through BitTorrent, insists Garland, they don’t come close to the number of tracks swapped through P2P.