Unwinding the Spin on 2012 Music Sales Figures: I Have Some Good News and Some Bad News

There have been many stories about the American music industry’s year-end numbers for 2012 this week.  Most just rattle off the top number in the executive summary:  “Overall music purchases up 3.1 percent! Yay!”

Well, hold on sunshine.  Let’s not be spoonfed a spun number.  Let’s deconstruct things a little using official Nielsen Soundscan numbers.

FACT:  The overall market for music sales shrank by 4% over 2011 in the US. (Down 2% in Canada).

FACT:  Sales of albums and track equivalents (when people buy 10 single tracks at a time, roughly equal to buying a full album) were down 1.8%.

FACT:  Physical CD sales were down 12.8% in the US in 2011 (Down 12% in Canada).  

(Interesting aside:  Digital sales have now passed physical sales.  The numbers for CDs sold at places like Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy are now less than the numbers generated by iTunes and other online retailers.  This is big milestone in the lifespan of the CD that’s gone under-rereported.)

FACT:  Although digital sales are up (digital albums, +14%, digital tracks up +5%), they aren’t growing fast enough to offset the decline in physical sales.  The gap is getting closer, but the industry still hasn’t quite got there.  (Same story in Canada where digital albums were up 20% and digital tracks were up 21%.)

However, there is also some good news.

FACT:  Vinyl sales were up 17.7 % in the US in 2012.  The bad news is that if you lump all the vinyl sold in the US last year into one number, you come up with 4.6 million units.  That’s a drop in the ocean.  But still…

Courtesy Digital Music News

FACT:  None of the numbers above include revenues from things like subscription services, satellite radio, webcasters and licensing arrangments.  Those numbers won’t be released into the spring.

Related articles:

CNET:  Here’s Why 2012 Music Sales Don’t Tell Full Story

Billboard:  Album Sales Down in 2012, But Digital Shows a Healthy Boost


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “Unwinding the Spin on 2012 Music Sales Figures: I Have Some Good News and Some Bad News

  • January 5, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    Three critical questions remain:
    1) How does an average person buy someone else music, as a gift? Holiday and birthday sales anyone?
    2) Shouldn't manufacturing be problem free? Sure, chuckle at my recent G.T. missing linear note basics complaint, and/or praise remasterings while only criticizing Loudness Wars or stretched out track inclusions, 15 years' late.
    3) Where could a person reasonably expect to hear either their new song, or say from The (returning in 2012) Beach Boys and maybe a current group like The Up Tight? What, from a discomforting radio station emced by a morning jokester crew and then pre-recorded all elsewhere with either heavily numbing commercial loads or alternated with entirely unannouced (yet, genre shortlisted) song in a row marathons?

    Here's a bonus.
    4) Shouldn't nightly talkshow performances be re-packaged and re-aired perhaps during a following week's half-hour(s) afterschool weekday? The media giants own both TV and radio. So why not?


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