Soundscan: Album Sales Down 14 Percent in ’08

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Album sales dropped a gaping 14 percent in 2008, according to figures shared by Nielsen Soundscan.

Specifically, physical and digital albums collectively moved to 428.4 million units in the United States, from 500.5 million in 2007.  The downward driver was the physical album, down 18.2 percent on the year.  Digital albums jumped 32 percent to a record 65.8 million, though the gains failed to compensate for the broader physical declines.

The results are part of a multi-year trend, though album drops intensified during the tail end of 2008.  Instead of mid-teen percentage declines, year-over-year drops recently hovered around 20 percent, at least for the months of September, October, and November.  That creates the wrong type of momentum for 2009.

In its year-end report, Nielsen pointed to record gains in overall units sold, a measurement that lumps a-la-carte downloads, ringtones, and CDs, among other assets.  The smorgasbord totaled 1.513 billion units, up 10.5 percent, though the figure is mostly regarded as a poor indicator of broader recording industry revenue movements.  It may also reflect a tendency towards overly-positive spin by Nielsen, especially given the beleaguered state of its major label clientele.

Elsewhere, a-la-carte downloads moved to a record 1.07 billion units, up 27 percent.  Just recently, Soundscan reported the first billion-plus download year for the industry, though questions surround the veracity of that total.  According to sources close to the counting methodology, the Soundscan total frequently relies on numbers shared by various stores without third-party verification.

The silver lining came from vinyl, a retro format that keeps on gaining.  In 2008, vinyl sales reached 1.88 million, a near-90 percent year-over-year gain.