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SoundScan’s Third-Quarter Numbers in One Word: Bleak

Bad news keeps mounting with the roll of the tape. So far this year, 60 digital songs have sold over 1 million units as compared to 83 last year. And after nine months, not one artist-album has yet…

Bad news keeps mounting with the roll of the tape.

So far this year, 60 digital songs have sold over 1 million units as compared to 83 last year. And after nine months, not one artist-album has yet to hit the million-unit mark, although the Frozen soundtrack is the year’s best-seller so far with a robust 3.12 million units.

In the prior year, five albums each had scanned over a million units, led by Justin Timberlake‘s 20/20 Experience, which at the end of 2013’s third quarter had scans of 2.3 million units.

The best-selling artist title this year is Beyonce’s self titled album with 776,000 scans, followed by Lorde‘s Pure Heroine, with 754,000 units. But like Frozen, both of those albums came out last year, which means that so far the top three selling albums this year were released last year. The top-selling release from this year is the No. 4 title, Eric Church‘s Outsiders with 722,000 scans, just ahead of Coldplay‘s Ghost Stories, by a a few units.


Getting back to digital songs, Pharrell Wiliams‘ “Happy,” is the best-selling track this year with 6.2 million scans followed by John Legend‘s “All of Me,” with 4.4 million scans and Katy Perry‘s “Dark Horse,” featuring Juicy J, with 4.3 million scans.

SoundScan's Third-Quarter Numbers in One Word: Bleak
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As usual, the Universal Music Group dominates market share, with 38.3 percent of album and track sales (album plus track equivalent albums), exactly the same amount it had last year at the end of the third quarter. Sony Music Entertainment meanwhile, fell to 27.7 percent from 29.1 percent, while the Warner Music Group slipped a little bit to 19.4 percent from 19.7 percent. The indie sector — in this case defined as those labels not distributed by major-owned indies — enjoyed a market share increase to 13.7 percent from 12.3 percent, while nearly 1 percent in market share is under review until the titles can be correctly identified with their distributors.

While indie market share is only at 12.3 percent in this view, if indie market share is calculated by ownership, the sector collectively has about 35 percent market share, when labels like Razor & Tie and Curb — distributed by the majors — and labels like Epitaph and Broken Bow — distributed by major-owned indies like RED, Alternative Distribution Alliance and Caroline — are included in indie share. (Since Nielsen SoundScan doesn’t break out market share by label ownership, Billboard calculates this metric twice a year, at mid-year and year-end.)

The softening in digital sales that began last year — initially in the digital track configuration but by year’s end also evident in digital albums — has become much more pronounced this year. In fact, the accelerating declines in digital album sales appears to be catching up with the digital track decreases, and both digital configurations may soon resemble the 15-20 percent declines the CD has suffered for most of the last decade.

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Overall, digital track sales fell 12.9 percent to 848.5 million in the first nine months of the year ended Sept. 28, 2014, down from 974.6 million in the corresponding period last year, ended Sept. 29, 2013. At the end of 2013, the first year of the digital sales decline, track sales were down 5.7 percent and album sales were down 0.1 percent.

But in the first nine months of this year, digital album sales declined 11.5 percent to 77.6 million from the 87.8 million scans garnered in the first nine months of 2013. Meanwhile, CD sales were down 18.9 percent to 91.7 million from 113.1 million units, which means that overall album sales were down 14.4 percent.

Within album sales, there was one bright spot: vinyl is up a whopping 47.5 percent to 6.074 million units from 4.12 million units last year. In fact, in the first nine-month period, vinyl album scans outpaced by 20,000 units all scans that the format had in all 12 months of last year, when vinyl sales totaled 6.054 million units. Jack White‘s Lazaretto is the best-selling title so far this year, with scans of almost 73,000 units.

Looking at album sales another way, current albums — defined as albums sales counted within the first 18 months of a titles release, or older albums still within the top half of the Billboard 200 — are suffering the biggest declines, a 17.7 percent drop to 86.2 million units from 104.8 million units last year; while catalog albums are down 10.9 percent to 89.5 million units from 100.4 million units.

Moving over to genre sales, practically every genre suffered greater declines than the overall U.S. album decline of 14.4 percent except for pop, which was only down 3.9 percent to 15.7 million; and rock, the largest genre, which declined 10.8 percent to 61.7 million from 69.2 million units; Gospel also held its own, falling 14.5 percent to 11.4 million units from 13.4 million units. R&B, which includes rap and hip-hop fell 24.7 percent to 26 million units from 34.6 million units, while country fell 22.3 percent to 20.9 million units from 26.9 million units. But in the case of the latter genre that decline so far may be more of a function of the release schedule as country has a jam-packed line-up of releases for the rest of the year.

Finally, looking at sales by store type, chain’s continue their decline and now sell less albums than non-traditional CD outlets like Amazon, Starbucks and concert venue. Overall chain album sales declined 25.4 percent to 20.8 million from 28 million, and now comprise 11.9 percent of album sales; while non-traditional outlets held their own selling 24.13 million units in both the first nine-months of this year and last and now comprised 13.7 percent of album sales. 

Moreover, indie stores also performed better than the industry and were only down 2.3 percent with total scans of 13.14 million units. Their share of album sales also grew to 7.5 percent of overall sales, up from 6.6 percent in the first nine months of last year. Even though download stores suffered a decline in album sales, their overall market share grew to 44.1 percent of the industry.

A version of this article first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of Billboard.