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,

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


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… Read more »


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 ( Xiami Music – 64464 ( Netease Cloud Music – 616708 ( Kugou Music- 326798 ( 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… Read more »


—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 …


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… Read more »


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… Read more »

Teenage Dream 12

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.

Tete 2.0

*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?????


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… Read more »


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….



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


Is Like a Virgin a blockbuster?

Last edited 8 months ago by Gabriel

Hey MJD, this is a bit off topic but are these P!nk sales accurate? she posted this picture from her label RCA

Some people are saying theyre underestimated with TTAL actually selling 6m+


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… Read more »


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 ?


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.