Understanding: The Ravaging Impact of Download Sales 2004-2014


Occasional buyers – the Blockbusters Savior

As always, if a statement is true then it must be possible to prove it with real figures. How can we determine those potential buyers? The first instinctive information is the number of inhabitants a country has. Then, we must think about households, as the average number of persons per house went largely down in recent decades. Continuing the reasoning, not all houses used to have a record player.

This link will give you the number of households in the UK, while this one tells that by 1982, just before Thriller album release, 83% of them was equipped with a record player in that country. As every computer or smartphone is now a worthy record player, let’s assume that number increased regularly up to 100% by 2011. What happens if we compare that number of record players in use (right axis) with the sales of the yearly #1 albums (left axis)?

We saw that the #1 album wasn’t following the market curve at all. Thanks to this graph, we have one new enlightening conclusion – blockbusters of very different era perfectly followed the path of potential buyers as represented by the number of record players in use. Michael Jackson‘s Thriller and BadRobson & Jerome eponymous album in 1995, Shania Twain‘s Come On Over in 1999, Life For Rent by Dido and Back to Bedlam by James Blunt in 2003 / 2005, all those albums validate completely this theory. One potential buyer every 10 bought those albums on their respective big years. A terrific achievement.

From 2006, we see that non-blockbuster albums that were still big enough to top the annual charts were failing to come close to that 1:10 ratio. Year after year, downloads impacted those hit makers albums which lost ground more and more. In 2013, only 1 potential buyer out of 40 bought the #1 album of the year.

Once again, facts prove this situation. When we compare the annual #10 annual to the potential buyers, we can see a striking collapse of regular consumers. From 1998 to 2006 they used to be bought by 1 potential buyer every 18, as shown by below graph now it is 1 every 57.

Both albums by Adele proved the potential buyers argument continues to be 100% true. Divide by Ed Sheeran will also hit the blockbuster line in full this year. The figure of 21 by Adele is intriguing though – how is it possible that it sold so much more than the norm in relation to potential buyers? If there is one thing positive which has been brought by legal downloads, although the British diva is almost the only one that was cross-generational enough to benefit from it, is that they broke the household limit. During the 80s, the standard was to own one record player per house. It continued to be true during the 90s even if cars helped in adding some potential when their cassette format was distinct from the in-house record player, often a CD player. The arrival of iTunes converted every inhabitant into a possible buyer. This is how Adele over-performed so much the norm for record players limited to households as parents got the CD while sons downloaded the record. It enabled the album to be purchased by 1 every 7 potential buyer during 2011.

22 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:
      Album Sales – 289,4m
      Download Singles – 1259m
      — Ratio 4,35 more downloads
      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
        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

        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

        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

          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???

          Bomt: 55
          Oops: 24
          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.

  7. Such a deep, exciting article. Would definitely like to see more of this on your website. Are we getting the second part anytime soon?

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