Understanding: The Ravaging Impact of Download Sales 2004-2014

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If we put together all conclusions from this article, we can commit on some fantasy figures. Had they been released 20 years earlier, albums like The Dutchess, Good Girl Gone Bad, The E.N.D. and Teenage Dream would all be on 7 to 10 million US album sales. The first two are weaker, so we can expect the lower part of that interval for them, around 7 million, while the last two are the strongest albums of all, which would have make them 9 to 10 million sellers. The 15 to 30 million download sales managed by all of them appear to be far from enough to compensate the units lost in the album front. At the peak of iTunes, every top 10 hit was truncating roughly 1 million sales to its parent album, while the said hit was selling at best about 5 million downloads. As they were way less expensive, this is a losing ratio which shows how much cheap downloads destroyed the music industry.

The result was a market limited at $7 billion per year in the US at their peak while consumers mechanics should have put it between $10 to $12 billion per year. It will get back up to that level quickly now thanks to streaming.

What about Adele then? As surprising as it may seem, all Soundscan-era top albums sold less than 12 million units over their first two calendar years. Come On Over by Shania Twain took 3 years to get there, the eponymous album of Metallica moved only 6 million in 2 years, Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette and Millennium did 11,6 / 11,7 million, Bodyguard sold 8,8 million, Supernatural by Santana 10,6 million, One by the Beatles 8 million. Britney Spears, Eminem and Celine Dion Diamond albums plus the Titanic Soundtrack, all closed their first 2 calendar years under 10 million.

Adele‘s 21 itself moved 11,1 million units in its first 2 years, exactly in line with the remaining monster albums. We saw that iTunes opened the door for multiple purchases per household, which enabled 21 to break the glass ceiling of top-albums in the UK by about 30%. It hasn’t made as well in the US, selling on par with the top 90s albums. The album combined both effects, losing several millions due to its singles download sales and gaining millions too thanks to the cross-generations purchases from the same household.  All in all, there is no reason to believe it would have sell more copies during its promotional campaign if released during the 90s. The difference would have come from mid-run sales thanks to record clubs, that would have grant it a few millions more on its 3rd to 10th year of sales. At best, this would represent 5 million sales, the result of Come On Over.

In absolute terms, that’s about the same loss than hit makers albums. The difference is that this 5 million hole is worth a loss of 60% to the fantasy sales of Rihanna or Katy Perry  while only 30% of loss for Adele. The different impact is only the main reason that enabled the latter to get massively dominant chart runs. As hit makers albums were strongly deflated on charts, they left more room for Adele-like artists. This is how while albums of Fergie, Rihanna, Katy Perry and the Black Eyed Peas combined for 14 weeks inside the Top 5 US Album Chart, 21 got 81 weeks Top 10 in the US and 77 in the UK, X by Ed Sheeran stayed there for a ridiculous 95 weeks, Emeli Sande 67 weeks and the debut album of Sam Smith 76 weeks. Those artificially distorted charts made hit makers look like way less popular artists than they really are, something streaming is evidencing anew.

I hope this article brought you some insights to better understand the real success of all those artists. The next chapter will show how streaming is now changing the game with the deep impacts it is going to have on the industry as a whole and on recording habits. Stay tuned!

Sources: BPI, RIAA, Billboard, Soundscan, BARB, Chartmasters.org.

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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