2011 Album Sales

Nielsen SoundScan is an organization that tracks point-of-purchase sales of recorded music, primarily in the USA, Canada, and Mexico.  The big news is that total album sales for 2011 (330.6 million sold) actually outpaced sales for 2010 (326.2 million).  This reverses a trend of declining year-over-year sales for the past decade.  The 1.3% uptick is modest to say the least, but at least the music industry can take some small consolation in seeing sales go in the right direction for a change.

“Total album sales” is defined as the sum of CDs, cassettes, LPs, and digital albums (when downloaded legitimately as a complete album).  What pushed the numbers over the 2010 sales level was probably a cluster of strong-selling records.  For the first time in years, 2011 saw several records that managed to gain traction and just kept selling and selling, week after week.  The best selling albums in North America last year were:

1 – 21  (Adele)  5,824,000
2 – Christmas  (Michael Buble)  2,452,000
3 – Born This Way  (Lady Gaga)  2,101,000
4 – Tha Carter IV  (Lil’ Wayne)  1,917,000
5 – My Kinda Party  (Jason Aldean)  1,576,000
6 – Sigh No More  (Mumford & Sons)  1,420,000
7 – Take Care  (Drake)  1,247,000
8 – Under The Mistletoe  (Justin Bieber)  1,245,000
9 – Watch The Throne  (Jay Z & Kanye West)  1,232,000
10 – Own The Night  (Lady Antebellum)  1,204,000

That sales figure for Adele’s record is kind of crazy.  NOTHING goes quintuple platinum anymore.  Good for her for catching lightning in a bottle.  It’s also nice to see three Canadian acts in the top ten, even if I don’t particularly care for any of those albums. To each his own; I’m just glad whenever someone cares enough to actually buy music these days.

In that total album sales figure, a total of 223.5 million CDs changed hands and 103.1 million digital albums were sold.  Vinyl is still very much a niche product, but look what happened to new vinyl sales:

2010:  2.8 million
2011:  3.9 million

That’s a year-over-year surge of more than 36%!  It’s also the most vinyl sold in one calendar year since SoundScan started tracking sales in 1991.  Evidently it wasn’t just me snapping up LPs.  Here’s what’s topped the 2011 charts for album sales on vinyl:

1 – Abbey Road (The Beatles)  41,000
2 – Helplessness Blues (Fleet Foxes)  29,700
3 – Bon Iver (Bon Iver)  27,200
4 – Sigh No More (Mumford & Sons)  26,800
5 – The King Of Limbs (Radiohead)  20,800
6 – 21 (Adele)  16,500
7 – For Emma Forever Ago (Bon Iver)  16,200
8 – The Whole Love (Wilco)  14,900
9 – Brothers (The Black Keys)  14,200
10 – El Camino (The Black Keys)  13,800

That should give a pretty good indication of what sort of buyer is shopping for big, round grooves.  It’s generally not the under-20 crowd – that’s where the individual digital download sales figures spike.  And it’s typically not in country or R&B or some of the other popular genres – vinyl is popular among alt-rock and indie-rock enthusiasts.  Presumably they’re the sort of people that are collectors as well as consumers; listeners that are more willing to invest some time in sitting in front of a turntable for a dedicated listening session.  White college-educated music nerds, basically.

(Full disclosure – your humble correspondent has five of those ten records on LP, and I’m debating whether to pick up some Black Keys next time I’m down at the shop)

It seems that, contrary to some of the doom & gloom prognostications in various media outlets, the music industry is holding its own.  As always, the health of the industry is dependent on finding artists that make records that people are actually willing to love enough to buy.  Pretty simple concept, really, but one that the major labels often seem to have trouble grasping.

We shall see how 2012 plays out.

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