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Album Sales Drop, Hip-Hop Surges as Pandemic Colors Nielsen Music/MRC Data’s Midyear Report: Analysis

At midyear with 361.2 million album audio consumption units, the U.S. music industry posted a 9.4% increase from the 330.3 million units tallied by half time 2019, despite having to overcome a…

At midyear with 361.2 million album audio consumption units, the U.S. music industry posted a 9.4% increase from the 330.3 million units tallied by half time 2019, despite having to overcome a bigger-than-expected drop in physical music formats due to the COVID-19 economic downturn, according to a new Nielsen Music/MRC Data report.

Within that, audio on-demand streaming continues to enjoy robust growth due to building at a 16.2% pace for the first half of the year to 419.82 billion streams. That’s up from the prior year’s six month total of 361.14 billion.


Lil Baby’s My Turn was the top album by midyear, racking up 1.467 million consumption units, while Roddy Rich‘s “The Box,” was the top song with nearly 1.07 billion streams. By midyear, five albums had surpassed the million album consumption unit milestone, as compared with three titles last year. As for songs, only three have passed the 500 million total stream mark in 2020, as compared to 12 songs that accomplished that feat in the first 26 weeks of 2019.


Looking at market share by distributor ownership, Universal Music Group’s dominance remains unchallenged with a 38.16% slice of the pie, up from 37.93% in the prior year; followed by Sony Music at 25.63%, which was a slight increase from the 25.54% posted in the prior period; and Warner Music Group tallied 19.80%. When Alternative Distribution Alliance is added in, Billboard estimates that indie labels going through distributors unaffiliated with the three major music companies totaled 16.40% market share in the first half of 2020.

Looking at market share by label ownership, Billboard estimates the indies collectively amassed 35.85% in market share, with UMG at 25.82%; Sony at 19.46% and the WMG at 16.16%.

Album Sales Drop, Hip-Hop Surges as
Nielsen Music/MRC Data

Moving over to the sales model, albums fell 18.1% to 45.5 million copies from the prior year’s midyear total of 55.6 million copies. Within that, the digital albums decline slowed but CD decreases accelerated, both probably due to the pandemic shutdown. With many record stores shuttered for a couple of months due to local government mandates across the country, CD sales fell a whopping 30.2% to 18.5 million copies from the 26.53 million copies sold in the prior year. Meanwhile, digital album downloads declined 14.3% to 17.65 million from the 20.6 million album downloads in the first six months of 2019.

Those declines represent a reversal in fortunes for the two album formats over the course of the pandemic. For the first 10 weeks of the year — right up until the shutdown — CD sales were only down 8.3%, while digital album sales were down an outsized 24.6%.

Album Sales Drop, Hip-Hop Surges as
Nielsen Music/MRC Data

Thus, with many indie and big chain stores closed — and with consumers sheltering at home — CD sales were smothered even as plenty of shoppers turned to Amazon and other online and mail-order sellers for their fixes. As a result, that retail sector’s album sales market share grew nearly five percentage points to 30.75%. But digital album downloads market share also enjoyed a resuscitation in the first half, with that sector’s share now nearly 39%, up more than a percentage point. The other store sectors tallied market shares of 14.91% for mass merchants; 12.54% for indie stores; 2.64% for chains; and non-traditional retail outlets at 0.26%.


The vinyl format continues its amazing growth story, proving to be the saving grace for the physical format, during the economic downturn causing pandemic. Overall, vinyl album sales enjoyed 11.2% growth to 9.2 million units, up almost 1 million copies from the 8.3 million copies scanned during the first half of 2019, thanks to Walmart coming to the party this year with a rollout of 12-inch platters added to its in-store music presentation.

As it is, Billie Eilish‘s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go album is the No. 1 vinyl seller with 85,000 scans. In fact, this year six titles have already achieved above 50,000 scans, as compared with three titles in the first half of 2019.

Album Sales Drop, Hip-Hop Surges as
Nielsen Music/MRC Data


In examining genres by audio consumption units, R&B/Hip-Hop was the biggest gainer yet again, growing to 28.51% in market share in 2020 versus the 27.86% market share the genre commanded at midyear 2019.

Latin and country had the next largest gains of the large genres, with the former now comprising 4.09% market share — that’s up from 3.86% at midyear 2019.

Meanwhile, country, which traditionally lags in format transitions, is the next biggest gainer with its market share growing to 8.34% of total audio album consumption units from 8.22% last year. That boost came thanks to a surge in streaming by country consumers.


The other genre showing a strong surge, likely due to families sheltering in place, was children’s music, which saw its market share increase to 1.37% from 1.09% at midyear 2019. Finally, world music also gained market share, growing to 1.56% from 1.39%.

As for genres that suffered market share declines, rock had the largest, falling to 20% from the 22.4% it had at the midway point last year, followed by Christian/Gospel, which fell to 2.06% from 2.58%; pop, at 13.44% from 14.03%; and dance/electronic to 3.25% from 3.71%.

Rounding out genres, at midyear 2020, blues claimed 0.28% share; classical 1.07%; comedy 0.20%; holiday 0.19%; jazz 1.13%; new age 0.56%; world at 1.56% and other at 1.75%, with an additional 12.21% unassigned to any genres.


Breaking out music activity another way, current audio album consumption units grew 7.1% to 130.7 million units, versus 122 million units in the prior year; while catalog album consumption units rose nearly 10.7% to 230.5 million units from 208.2million units.

On the other hand, even though activity for current albums declined, the top 200 titles in overall album consumption units, including video track equivalent albums, combined accounted for a greater portion in 2020 at 17% of all consumption units versus 15.55% of 2019 total consumption units.

Album Sales Drop, Hip-Hop Surges as
Nielsen Music/MRC Data

Finally, due to a recalibration in the way Billboard counts video streams for the charts — with consumers having to be signed into their digital services in order for their plays to count — video streaming counts are significantly smaller than last year. Consequently, Billboard didn’t include overall album consumption units in its analysis since there is no apple-to-apple comparison available when looking at this year versus last year. If it had, with that caveat in mind, overall, consumption units, as counted by Nielsen Music/MRC Data totaled 382.85 million units in the six months period ended July 2, a 0.4% increase over the 381.3 million in the first half of 2019. Within that, video streams, so far this year totaled almost 81.2 billion, which is less than half of what it was last year for the corresponding six-month period.

Click HERE to View Several Charts From the Nielsen Music/MRC Data Midyear Report