The decline of the album

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Figures have revealed that in the UK last year digital music sales saw a growth of 27% on the previous year, up from less than 5% in the four years since 2007. The report by music industry trade body the BPI, which monitors record sales across the country, confirmed that digital now accounts for just under a quarter of all music sales in the U.K. However, the report also revealed that while digital has seen a sharp growth over the past few years, album sales as a whole are still in decline, with combined sales down 5.6% in 2011.

The BPI attributes this continued overall decline to a number of factors.  Among them is the impact of online piracy on both physical and digital album sales. One of the most visible file sharing sites is Pirate Bay, the latest in a long line of file sharing facilitators which started with Napster, the first peer to peer client to gain national attention as a serious threat to the music industry. Music streaming services like Spotify and Grooveshark have also been highlighted as contributors to the drop in music sales, as they allow users to listen to music from a large digital library either free of charge with advertisements, or with a small monthly subscription.

A change in how music is consumed has also been highlighted as a contributing factor to the drop in album sales. Legal downloading services such as iTunes, by allowing individual songs to be downloaded in isolation, have placed the emphasis more on songs than albums. Smartphones and tablets are now also increasingly being used to buy digital music on the go, further contributing to the growth in online sales at the expense of traditional, physical formats and full-length albums. Indeed, in 2011 single sales far outweighed those of albums, up from 87 to 178 million just 4 years earlier. The singles market is also 98% digital sales, further highlighting how most consumers today prefer to cherry pick individual songs and create their own unique playlists, rather than have to rely on pre-packaged compilations.

In light of this sharp fall in album sales it should be noted that while digital continues to make headlines as a growing music format, consumers still prefer owning a physical copy of the music they buy. This is evident in the fact that the number of albums bought on CD is still 3 times those downloaded in spite of these latest lukewarm figures. There has also been the continuing mini-resurgence of vinyl albums amongst music fans. LP sales rose 44% last year to 337,000 units, the highest level since 2005. Although making up less than 1% of music purchased, this does signal a growing move back towards the physical piece of art over the most convenient or inexpensive format, perhaps signalling that in the long run CD’s will eventually be squeezed from both sides as the convenience of digital and tangible quality of vinyl take over.

Geoff Taylor, BPI chief executive officer, looked for positives in the growth of digital as a major music format in the light of these disappointing combined figures for the British music industry; “The most encouraging news is the strong backing consumers are giving to the digital album format…British music fans understand that the album remains the richest way to connect with an artist’s work.”