Understanding: The Ravaging Impact of Download Sales 2004-2014

Woman with headphones listening music. Music teenager girl danci

Regular buyers vs Occasional buyers

Now that we understood that hit makers were more impacted by the arrival of iTunes, we must wonder why. I started explaining it with the target audience including a lot of persons that couldn’t afford for big investments and that were still not used to buy records. One more key factor is the regular buyers vs occasional buyers logic.

The period of our life on which we are the most interested into music is by far the 12 to 25 years old period. We listen to a lot of music, on a very regular basis. Logically, those regulars consumers will be the first ones to move into a new format / evolution as they are way more aware of the current environment. People past 30 years old, that used to buy only albums of their favorite artists time by time, weren’t likely at all to buy an iPod, create an iTunes account and start downloading music. Basically, the iTunes target audience was the same one as Top 40 radio stations target audience.

Looking at the contrapositive, it also means that non-regular buyers weren’t using downloads much. So, if we concluded that downloading stand-alone tracks was the killer of album sales from 2005 to 2012, then it must mean that artists targeting an audience of persons not involved much into the music industry should continue to sell as well as before.

It is difficult to identify clearly albums belonging to this category. One specie remains though, the blockbusters. Those albums are those which got so big that labels promoted them on the biggest avenues, including the most expensive ones where it is usually not commercially viable to promote music records. Those albums will happen one time every 2 or 3 years, topping charts for 3 months or more. To point them out, below graph shows the #1 and #10 seller of each year in the UK since 1997 (left axis), along with the curve of the market evolution (right axis).

If you look carefully, you can notice the #10 seller of the year went up and down roughly the same way as the market as a whole. In the other side, the #1 seller doesn’t follow this pre-defined path at all. This is precisely the result of some records appealing to consumers that are not part of the usual buyers, which thus do not impact much the overall market. The market size gives a very good indication of the evolution of regular buyers, but it doesn’t help to define the number of potential buyers around.

21 thoughts on “Understanding: The Ravaging Impact of Download Sales 2004-2014”

  1. Wow, your research is very impressive.
    I’m very skeptical about figures and always ask questions.
    After seeing the way you research and work out the numbers, I trust your numbers 100% over
    any “leading” publication.

  2. Thank you ! That’s a very precise and clear insight. Can the streaming platform reverse that trend ? What a difference does it really make for the impact of big hits on overall albums ?

    1. Hi Rell!

      A part 2 of that article is in the making. While that part 1 told how / who was penalized by downloads, the second leg will tell how / who will be boosted by streaming! I’ll post it soon 🙂

  3. Hi MJD!

    This is truly an insightful article. I’m glad you’re doing deep analysis on the music industry and explaining this to us, making us understand more about how the industry evolved and how it affected artists of different time period. This can also help us from jumping to biased conclusions regarding artists’ success. If this was a research for a high school assignment, and I’m the teacher, I would not only give you a bonafide A+, I’d directly send you off to college, because this article and series is the most impressive you’ve done so far!

    I have some questions though. Firstly, you’ve mentioned that Adele’s two blockbuster albums had a combined effect of gaining millions of album sales from cross-generation consumption but lost sales due to downloads, hence selling the same as previous blockbusters on Soundscan. Yet, in the UK, Adele managed to sell 30% higher than the norm of potential buyers? Is it due to difference of the download market between the 2 countries?

    Also, you mentioned that the there is no reason to believe Adele’s 21 would have sold more in the 90’s during it’s promotional campaign, with the only difference in sales resulting from the lost in sales from clubs in their mid-run. Is this applicable to blockbusters only, or both blockbusters and hit-making albums? Are hit-making albums affected during it’s promotional campaign? Also, how are you sure that blockbuster albums and hit-making albums will suffer the same loss in sales if released in the 90’s, like the 5 million hole in sales you’ve mentioned in page 7 for Adele and Katy and Rihanna.

    Really looking forward to the next article on how streaming helps boosts artists. I’m guessing that streaming equivalents are more able to compensate the loss of album sales more than download equivalents, is that so?

    Anyway, keep up the fantastic work you guys!

    1. Hi Raffi!

      Yes, downloads have been clearly stronger in the US than in the UK. By 2013 when streaming was going to take over:
      US
      Album Sales – 289,4m
      Download Singles – 1259m
      — Ratio 4,35 more downloads
      UK
      Album Sales – 94,0m
      Download Singles – 182m
      — Ratio 1,94 more downloads

      That is why an albums like Good Girl Gone Bad, Teenage Dream and The E.N.D. average more than 1,5m UK sales, half of the US total. During the 90s, a hit-making album was selling 8m in the US and less than 2m in the UK, less than 25% of US sales. As you can see there is no coincidence as everything perfectly match together!

      BTW, some extra help that Adele got in the UK is presents. Music isn’t that great of a gift in the US, CDs are too cheap and iTunes cards often consumed on singles. In the UK the market still explodes at Christmas / Father-Mother’s day / Valentine’s Day etc. – as much as 42% of Q4 sales are gifts. Adele got plenty of sales from those presents making sure sons, mums and grandmas all got their copy!

      Hit-makers lost sales from day 1. It is visible from the debut week when Rihanna, Katy etc can’t sell well because when the album drops millions of people already downloaded the lead single. Blockbusters avoid this early problem due to their extensive reach added to the higher number of potential buyers, which compensate for the less of sales from the regular buyers. In the mid-long run, when that extensive promotion is over and we reach the catalog phase, then they suffer just like the others. That’s how 21 sold as well as Bodyguard / JLP / Come On Over in its first 2 years and then felt several millions under as its 3rd-6th years of sales were much lower in spite of performing better on charts.

      The 5-million hole is a coincidence, Adele was big enough to get that from Clubs / Catalog sales, as a general rule hit makers lost way, way more sales in proportion (as shown, -60% vs -30%) but also more sales in absolute terms in comparison to lower profile Adele-like artists. A good example would be Michael Bublé who sold as well / better than the likes Katy or Rihanna although he was clearly nowhere near as popular.

    1. Hi Trish!

      The label know the real figure, they are not “estimating”! Below an old message I posted explicitly pointing out how ridiculously inflated Mediatraffic figure was in relation to TTAL:

      US 2012
      03 – 1,615,604 – UP ALL NIGHT – One Direction
      05 – 1,339,652 – TAKE ME HOME – One Direction
      06 – 1,323,605 – BELIEVE – Justin Bieber
      12 – 944,681 – THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE – Pink
      36 – 553,403 – UNAPOLOGETIC – Rihanna

      US 2013
      15 – 934,000 – THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE – Pink
      32 – 591,000 – UNAPOLOGETIC – Rihanna
      36 – 555,000 – TAKE ME HOME – One Direction
      87 – 313,000 – UP ALL NIGHT – One Direction
      61 – 404,000 – BELIEVE ACOUSTIC – Justin Bieber
      98 – 225,000 – BELIEVE – Justin Bieber (up to week 47)

      UK totals
      20 – 20 – 345,250 – Pink – Truth About Love – 789,750
      22 – 22 – 291,500 – One Direction – Take Me Home – 906,500
      39 – 33 – 206,500 – Rihanna – Unapologetic – 681,500
      42 – 42 – 194,000 – One Direction – Up All Night – 1,033,250
      72 – 71 – 141,900 – Justin Bieber – Believe – 141,700 (without 2013)
      192 – n/a – 48,500 – Justin Bieber – Believe Acoustic – 48,500

      Totals up to end of 2013 in UK+US
      Pink – Truth About Love – 2,669,000 => shipped ~2,8m
      Rihanna – Unapologetic – 1,826,000 => shipped ~2m
      One Direction – Take Me Home – 2,801,000 => shipped ~3m
      One Direction – Up All Night – 2,962,000 => shipped ~3,1m
      Justin Bieber – Believe – 2,190,000 => shipped ~2,4m

      Removing those figures from IFPI / MT gives us following estimates for other countries:
      Pink The Truth About Love – 4,8 IFPI || 5,3 MT => 2,0 IFPI || 2,6 MT
      Rihanna Unapologetic – 3,2 IFPI || 3,5 MT => 1,2 IFPI || 1,7 MT
      One Direction – Take Me Home – 5,8 IFPI || 5,3 MT => 2,8 IFPI || 2,5 MT
      One Direction – Up All Night* – 6,2 IFPI || 5,2 MT => 3,1 IFPI || 2,2 MT
      Justin Bieber – Believe – 4,6 IFPI || 3,0 MT => 2,2 IFPI || 0,8 MT
      *shipped 700k (haven’t check in details at all) in 2011

      In conclusion, Pink and Justin shipped similar amounts outside UK/US in those 2 years (2m vs 2,2m, Justin ahead), but still MT estimate retail sales on those areas at more than 3 times more for Pink than Bieber. She “sold” 1,3 times her shipments, Bieber 0,37 times. That is despite there is still many other countries with known sales figures. Rihanna album even sold over 40% more than its shipment if we follow MT figures.

  4. Hi MJD,

    You say that Adele sold millions copies because of the cross-generation effect, but blockbusters albums like The Fame (Monster) sold very well and they’re not cross-generational, it targets a very young audience

    1. Hi Gonzalex,

      That’s why The Fame isn’t a blockbuster – it sold way less pure album copies than 21 in spite of the reissue. It was an insanely successful hit-maker album(s) instead. As mentioned inside the article, blockbusters are the kind of albums that destroy the competition with 3+ months at 1 like Abbey Road, Tapestry, Rumours, SNF, Grease, The Wall, Thriller, Born in the U.S.A., Bodyguard, Titanic, 21 etc. The Fame isn’t from that category, in fact it failed to top the US charts.

  5. Super interesting article. I have 2 comments to make:

    1) There are some very successful albums that generated less than 5 Top 10 hits: Purple Rain, Music box, Whitney, Baby one more time, Supernatural, Millennium, Falling into you, No strings attached, Come away with me, Jagged little pill, etc… do you consider them blockbusters?

    2) It is very interesting to analyze the opposite: album with inflated sales due to the lack of physical release of their hit singles, that happened in the US from 1996 until 2004. I wonder how much would they have sold if proper singles were released….

    1. Hi Gus!

      Here are the answers to both questions:

      1) There is definitely both hit-makers albums (Music Box, American Idiot, both Bruno Mars first albums etc) as well as blockbusters (Purple Rain, JLP, CAWM etc) with less than 5 top 10 hits. I selected this criteria to highlight the point with the most extreme examples, but as stated inside the article nearly all Pop Airplay hits that sold 3-5 million downloads would have grant more than 1m album sales in the past.

      2) True too! Many artists extensively used that strategy and it is definitely visible from the Top 10 albums of each year that got incredibly strong when downloads collapsed. Inside the US market statistic, the jump of overall revenue during that exact period is precisely due to albums enjoying higher sales thanks to unreleased singles! It is the equivalent of 25, 1989 or Lemonade that got their pure album sales boosted thanks to limited streaming availability.

  6. Good points. Only Britney fans fail to realize that the sales climate has changed drastically and that albums in the digital era cannot be compared to those from the past. There is that delusional mess Eternium that goes on comparing TEAs/SEAs between albums from the late 90s/early 00s as if everyone and their mother wasn’t going multiplatinum back in the day (even J.Lo, Ricky Martin, Shaggy, Ashanti and others) which gives bigger advantage to the artists from the physical era. Even during her ‘peak higher than Mount Everest’ Britney was outsold by Santana, Backstreet Boys, Eminem, The Beatles etc which indicates that she never dominated her competition massively. Anyway, the TEAs/SEAs method is not enough to make up for the enormous loss in albums sales, it’s only used for revenue purpose. Could you make the list of best selling albums released from each year?

    1. Hi Slobro!

      This is one of the reasons I already switched the downloads:album sales ratio from 10:1 to 10:1,5. An album that managed 33m downloads/ringtones has 5m equivalent album sales, which made up for the 8m to 3m drop in pure album format. When updated the likes Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Rihanna will get strong boosts that will better reflect their real popularity peak. In fact, this formula adjustment will push The Fame ahead of Baby One More Time. The song BOMT will remain ahead of all Gaga songs. This is a good reflection of both situations, e.g. Britney owning the truly biggest hit of her generation but The Fame era as a whole being arguably bigger than BOMT era that wasn’t as strong in the mid/long run.

      Yearly lists is really something I’m looking for. A few days ago only, I checked the biggest eras of the last 20 calendar years to see if I had one year complete enough to write an article about it. Sadly, there is still big albums missing from every year. As soon as the body of CSPC articles will be consistent enough no doubt I’ll exploit it to build such lists.

      1. Thank you! I am looking forward to that article.

        Just one more question: Lately, we’ve been seeing unbelievably high album sales for some artists in China. Are they legit?

        For example: Witness by Katy Perry

        QQ Music – 565743 (https://y.qq.com/n/yqq/album/0049G4ZJ03LeoA.html)
        Xiami Music – 64464 (https://h.xiami.com/music_buy.html?id=2102748082&_uxid=DB801E4C2F63BAA5D7DCA84EFEA9F061)
        Netease Cloud Music – 616708 (http://music.163.com/store/product/detail?id=6383073&from=out&iphoneAlbumOnSale=true&vipTabOrder=0&sendAlbumSwitch=1&client=web&adKey=61_6383073&g_islenovo=false)
        Kugou Music- 326798 (http://zhuanjistatic.kugou.com/html/pc_commonchargeV3/index_82292.html?is_go=0&hreffrom=37)

        Anti, Dangerous Woman, 1989, : have big numbers on these music platforms too. Are those track sales, album sales, streaming numbers? Are they legit? For example, GAON chart tracks cost like $0.02 but it looks like IFPI counts them (Crushcrushcrush would have never made IFPIs Top 10 Best selling singles of 2007 otherwise). Would you consider these ‘Chinese sales/numbers’ in your future analysis? Thank you again, you are the most unbiased/objective chart expert we have.

      2. —The Fame era as a whole being arguably bigger than BOMT era that wasn’t as strong in the mid/long run.–

        The era of the fame were two albums, to be fair, and it had many more singles than baby one more time and more than two years of promotion…

        Anyway, Lady Gaga is two albums. The fame represents 70 percent of gaga total sales. Baby one more time also was a monstrous success, but only represents thirty percent of the sales of Britney. And Britney lived the decline of the industry four years later …

    2. Omg, slobro.

      That delusional mess and their fellow stans have been trying hard to appropriate the CSPC methodology in spite of MJD clearly explaining what it was really about.

      To them, an album with a higher CSPC total is always bigger than any other album regardless of their release dates. Of course, when it comes to their favorite artist, Britney Spears, things work differently. Just like how, according to them, Britney’s Femme Fatale is a bigger album than Beyoncé’s 4 despite 4 having a CSPC total almost twice bigger than FF, which isn’t surprising considering it did better in every metric – album sales, song sales and streaming. (As if clinging to Hold It Against Me’s U.S. peak position wasn’t embarrassing enough considering the song’s year-end position and total sales.)

      They are people who think Britney peaking during the peak of album sales has no impact on her sales and total CSPC.

      Nothing in 2017 can top album sales from 2000 – but that’s a thing they just can’t understand (and digest).

      1. Britney vs Lady Gaga vs Beyonce numbers one and tops 10 worldwide
        Britney
        Billboard hot 100: 5-13
        UK: 6- 25
        Germany: 3-19
        France: 3-16
        Australia: 6- 19
        Canada: 9-22
        Italy: 4-14

        Lady Gaga
        Billboard hot 100: 3-14
        UK: 3- 11
        Germany: 4-10
        France: 3-14
        Australia: 3-11
        Canada: 4-13
        Italy: 1-14

        Beyonce
        Billboard hot 100: 5- 16
        UK: 5-18
        Germany: 1- 10
        France: 0-8
        Australia: 1-12
        Canada: 0-12
        Italy: 0-12

        Katy Perry
        Billboard hot 100: 9- 14
        UK: 4-15
        Germany: 2-12
        France: 0-13
        Australia: 4-15
        Canada: 10-17
        Italy: 1-12

        Total
        Britney: 33-128 (she has 42 singles). Last number one single: 2011 (13 years of career)
        Beyonce: 12- 88 (she has 62 singles)
        Lady Gaga: 25-86 (four years wihtout hits). Last top 3 single: 2011 ( 3 years of career)
        Katy Perry: 30-86 (four years without hits). Last top 3 single: 2014 (6 years of career)

        Britney has much more hits worldwide than any of them. That’s also because it debuted in 1999??

      2. So Baby One More Time is bigger than any Lady Gaga song and BOMT is a bigger era than any Beyonce one. Thank you for confirming.

        1. *So Baby One More Time is bigger than any Lady Gaga song and BOMT is a bigger era than any Beyonce one. Thank you for confirming.*

          Ha ha and bigger than katy perry career

          Katy
          Weeks top 10 in billboard 200:
          One the boys: 1
          Tenage dream: 10
          Prism: 15
          Witness (less than 10 years of career): 2 weeks or 1???

          Britney
          Bomt: 55
          Oops: 24
          Britney:9
          In the zone: 8
          Circus (ten years of career): 9
          Femme Fatale (13 years of career): 5

          Who has more succes and longecity?????

    3. BOMT and OIDIA spent about 80 weeks in the top 10 of Billboard (the same as Beyonce throughout all her career and more than Lady Gaga and three times more than katy perry ) with a lot of competition (backstreet boys, eminem, santana, Christina …). And billboard did not take into account sales of music clubs!

      The Fame: about 50 weeks in the top 10 (with a reissue)
      Born this way: about 10 weeks in the top 10
      Art Pop: 3 or 4?
      Joanne: 3?

      Baby one more time: 55 weeks
      Oops i did it again: 24 weeks
      Britney: 9 weeks
      In the zone: 8 weeks
      Circus: 9 weeks
      Femme Fatale: 5 weeks

      Britney was more successful and more longevity than Gaga by far.

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