Believe It, or Not: Major Labels Say Sales Improved In 2011

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Everyone loves a good fairytale for the holidays, so here’s another one.

Ahead of the official count, major labels are now claiming a slim 1 percent album sales increase over last year, based on preliminary stats from Nielsen Soundscan. The ‘bottom’ is being powered by heavy-sellers like Adele, Michael Buble, Justin Bieber, Jason Aldean, and Drake, who are likely to put year-2011 sales in the 350 million range (US only).

That’s quite a shift from last year, when year-end sales landed 12.7 percent below the 2009 mark.  Cumulative album sales rested at 362.2 million for 2010, while physical tanked 19 percent to 240 million.  Which is all part of a rather horrific sales decade we all know so well…

This is a story major labels desperately want to believe, but it’s mostly a selectively-reported rebound.  Just last month, BigChampagne CEO (and now GM) Eric Garland told BusinessWeek that sales are only increasing on a units basis, thanks to aggressive price-chopping.  “The lower pricing strategy is getting more music into the hands of consumers, though revenue from album sales remains lower than a year ago,” Garland said.

In other words, the more important revenue story is down.  But even on a units-only basis, the majors are playing an incredibly top-heavy game.   Back in March, Nielsen revealed that 82 percent of album sales come from just 1 percent of releases, which means that artists like Adele have the power to create wild performance swings.  And those success stories don’t come cheap.