That’s according to a major industry executive source, who agreed to share early-2013 paid download stats with Digital Music News this morning. The preliminary year-over-year tallies show that a-la-carte download sales are down on the year, for the first time ever. “It’s down about three percent [year-over-year],” the source relayed, while offering to spill more details over the next few days. “That’s a first.”
The symbolism is dramatic, though numbers-wise, this isn’t completely out of the blue. Last year, download singles were up 5.1 percent, to a record 1.336 billion units (again, US-specific). The year prior to that (2011), digital track sales gained 8.5 percent to a then-record 1.271 billion units. Both of those are single-digit gains, with a clear move towards the present decline.
Digital album sales are still up on the year, also according to the source. But the base (or denominator) for those gains is much smaller, which means that percentage gains are predicated on far smaller absolute gains. That said, the rate of increase is also slowing on albums, according to the source.
Last year, broader album sales (physical+digital) slipped a modest 4 percent on the year, according to stats published by Nielsen Soundscan.
So, is this officially the beginning of the streaming era, and the end of the download era? The 2013 sales story on downloads is obviously still unfolding, though the development follows significant surges in subscription and streaming adoption, particularly from the likes of Muve Music, YouTube, Pandora, and Spotify (across both free and paid).
Still, this may be more about the limitations of downloads and digital sales in general, and less about the relative strength streaming. “[Spotify CEO] Daniel Ek [just revealed] 6 million subscribers, but 6 million subscribers compared to the 400 million credit card-linked accounts in iTunes, it’s just a drop in the ocean,” analyst Mark Mulligan told an audience at SXSW last week.