Selling More Than 100 Downloads a Year? Then Consider Yourself Very Lucky

Did you sell more than 100 downloads last year?

How about more than 1?  We spent the morning compiling some statistics related to paid downloads, specifically from 2011, and found some stunningly-lopsided figures.  That includes some statistics just revealed at New Music Seminar, which show that paid downloads are extremely skewed towards larger, mass-marketed (ie, major label) artists.  And, that it’s easier than ever to get buried in the pile.

First, consider these top-level stats from the top of the sales pyramid, as shared by Nielsen Soundscan several months ago:

(1) The top 10 artists accounted for 9.52 percent of all a-la-carte, digital downloads in 2011 (does not count digital albums).

They are: Adele, Lady Gaga, Mumford & Sons, Jay-Z & Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Coldplay, Drake, Micheal Buble, Katy Perry, and Foster the People.

(2) The top 10 selling songs accounted for 3.1 percent of all a-la-care paid downloads in 2011 (does not include digital albums).

(3) The top 10 digital albums accounted for 6.43 percent of all digital albums sold in 2011.

Now, consider these stats emerging from the lower end of the pyramid, as shared at NMS.

(4) Roughly 8 million songs were downloaded just once in 2011, also according to Nielsen.

(5) 94 percent of all songs were downloaded less than 100 times in 2011.

and, the background…

(6) The iTunes Store now has a catalog of 28 million songs.

29 Responses

  1. Franklin Purnell

    So much for the long tail theory. So what does this mean for downloads period?

    • guru

      Long tail theory does not imply that the artist who only sells 5 songs will make money. It implies that there is a business opportunity to aggregate and sell a vast number of songs that only sell in low quantity. I.e. Few song * high volume = Many songs * low volume.

      Thats why there is an opportunity for companies such as who aggregate millions and millions of indie artists. Distribution costs are low, storage costs are low -> low volume business works.

      • paul


        I’ve seen that argument relating to the Long Tail theory before, but I think it suffers from a overly-narrow interpretation. After diving into Chris Anderson’s first book many years ago, I realized that this was just one aspect of the theory. The rest – chapters and chapters – were dedicated to waxing about the grand opportunities smaller creators could experience selling less, and reaping the large percentages that come with control and direct-to-consumer contact.

        If I wasn’t drinking responsibly, I’d have thought that Britney Spears was the last mainstream, top-down success story. Quite the opposite has played out.

        Sure, a business like Tunecore, CD Baby, or yours can be profitable based on small purchases deep in the tail, the infinite shelf. I’d argue that it’s nearly impossible for the individual creator to draw similar successes, and that this was part of the Long Tail ‘hope’.


        • radio & records vet

          Paul, I’m afraid I came away with a different interpretation of the Long Tail theory and “hope,” as you have.

          I also fall to the tail being more about the success of aggregation, as opposed to the hope of a DIYer being able to capitalize profitably.

          My old partner(s) and I had an online store. We knew that 95% of the product we sold would never provide any reasonable sales to the individual DIYer – but rather I looked at it from the retail sales perspective that if I sold 1 ea of 100 titles, I would have grossed $X x 100 sales while the DIYer would earn $Y x 1 sale.

          Now, if the artist believed that having their product on 100 sites would equate to the aggregate value, then yes, I see your point — but that never materialized as iTunes captured 90+% of the market.

          • paul

            Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the aggregation business theory isn’t correct – quite to the contrary, it’s a central part of the Long Tail theory. But Chris Anderson’s Long Tail really went far beyond that. Really, Anderson wasn’t getting paid $40k a speaking engagement and minting a best-seller on dry business theory alone — rather, it was about the imminent revolution and what that meant for every creator no matter how small!

            It played into all of our utopian ideals related to direct-to-consumer, post-middleman economics. We wanted to believe that we were living in this immense disruption, one that would change media consumption and super-serve every ‘niche and cranny’.

            And most of that has failed to materialize, and has been debunked as religious rather than realistic. To then defend the Long Tail as being this narrow theory ultimately is to really discuss one piece of it, in my opinion.


  2. David@indigoboom

    Sales have always been like this. A few big artists sell almost everything and the rest is spread out between a large number. However most IndigoBoom artists sell way more than the numbers in this piece indicate. In many cases more than enough to make at least a good supplement to their concert/sync and session work or day job, so things are not quite as bad as one might think. The world does not owe anyone a living, and the mere fact that so many distribute music these days does not mean that all these songs will or even should sell.

    Streaming is growing all the time (as in the ratio between streaming and download revenues) This developement is as expected and will continue to the point where downloads will be almost non existant.

    I think now as i have always thought, that musicians should be in this for the love of it. Its not like all you had to do in the eighties was release a record and you where home free. Not all that much has changed in this respect. However if you are any good you can now sell to a degree without having to get past some bonehead A&R guy. That has to be a good thing.

    On the flipside it means that in in the end a lot of unfiltered product is on the shelves. Imagine walking in to a record store in the eighties and finding everyones demo on vinyl there, because that is pretty much what it is like now.

    If you want to find the real ratio of major acts to small act sales, you first haveto strip out all the “demos”

    I am not saying the article is wrong, but the answer is a little more complex than it is laid out here.

  3. @vertecs

    Another reason to think about legal and illegal downloads and where artist income is REALLY generated.

  4. @bandwidthmusic

    We can change this statistic with ruly independent digital distribution.

  5. Griff

    Lucky? I worked hard to attract those 3 paying downloads.

  6. John Power

    whilst that 94% figure is eye catching what would make it more useful as a statistic would be to see the figures discounting songs that had been released for more then 12 months or 2 years say.

    After all with 50 years + of music available digitally it makes sense that huge amounts of music from the past that we now have acces to languishes unloved on servers somewhere

    and even if the number of downloads stayed the same that % would surely continue to rise every year as the pool of music grows deeper and murkier.

    unless i’m getting it wrong

    • Robbie Fields


      Yup, you’ve got it wrong.

      The older the master, the more likely you will have paid downloads.

      Our bread and butter are 30 year old recordings. The 90’s showed saturation in the retail racks and no matter their improved quality, often the same artists, sales could not match the older efforts, even though “hit” albums were now selling millions in the same genre.

      New groups? You’re on a hiding to nothing. Whereas those same bulging racks might have a copy of a new group’s compact disc, those racks, those stores have been vaporized.

      The countless millions of songs on iTunes is only a problem for new artists hoping in vain to be noticed. For catalog, iTunes and Amazon’s servers with their instant search capability are eternal life. No more cut out bins, no more deleted product. Life long and new fans alike can awake their spiritual connection to their beloved music.

      We now have hundreds of recordings up for download, 80% previously out of print. We’ve had downloads for every single one, with 90+% over the 100 download threshold.

      So what do new groups do? They game the system. They pay Bandcamp to distribute free downloads. They organize bot farms to pump their streams on youtube, Spotify and other streaming services. If backed by major money, they will buy chart position.

  7. WILL

    Let’s all admit that selling your CD out the back of your car at gigs for $10 back in the day was a hell of a lot easier.

    The long tail might work for labels who have numerous titles in there but for the individual artist it’s doom and gloom. For starters, how do you direct potential listens in the first place. Millions of tracks back to back gaining digital dust.

    Have a fall back plan bands, have a career to fall back on. You’re gonna need it (managers too)

  8. Steve

    Points 5 and 6 seem to conflict.

    If 8 millions song only sold once (roughly), then how did 94% of songs sell less than 100 times?

    • paul

      One is actually a subset of another – picture a tail with a really sharp drop-off, with ‘1’ unit on the y axis going on seemingly forever on the x axis.

      The first comment is right, I really should have done an ‘infographic’ – as funny as that was, I could have thrown a graph in to illustrate.


  9. Realist

    A great snapshot and wonderful comments but, as with most things in life, the truth is somewhere in the middle. CdA Distribution has a little under 6,000 tracks in the market, a paltry sum compared to the other companies mentioned above, but mixing an A&R element with the aggregation principle has put 100% of the catalogue squarely in the 6%. The filter we used to have in the business was based on a lot of wrongheaded things but there still needs to be a filter. So many things released today really don’t deserve to be released and that is why there were 8 million songs downloaded just once. Even their own family members did not want it. Viva the filter!

  10. @xolondon

    Utterly depressing, but must-read music stats.

  11. @hbsmktg

    The music industry’s long tail, now trimmed at the head and virtually worthless at the end?

  12. @tampa_rick

    Musicians: this is the reality of the digital world.

  13. Third Monk Records

    Beer is the future!

    You can’t download it for free and almost everyone buys it and they have to buy more once they drink what they’ve bought!

  14. 80% of Downloaded Songs 20 yea

    You might want to track down the data on this metric, but I recall seeing a similar article that broke down downloads by the age of the song. I think it suggested that almost 80% of downloads were songs written more than 20 years ago….