SoundScan reported a 1% uptick in album sales in the first half of 2011. And while that number may seem tiny, it's actually pretty big news given that it's the first increase since 2004. And even that year was but a mere blip, with declining sales every year previously since 1999. Recording artists have digital sales to thank.
Nielsen's data says 155.5 million albums of all kinds (CDs, digital, vinyl) were sold in the U.S. through June, which is a 1% increase on the 153.9 million for the same period in 2010. The growth is propelled exclusively by digital sales—albums in digital format jumped 10%, and may "set a new sales record at the end of the year." Overall music sales, which is the figure if you count individual track sales, music videos, and singles, jumped 8.5% compared to 2010's figure. And if you wrap ten individual tracks together and call that an "album" (to reflect the trend of purchasing single tracks), then total album sales were up 3.6%.
Improved music sales could be a reflection of a boost in consumer spending—they're a simple luxury purchase. Or it could be that there's simply better popular music on sale in the U.S. this year (Gaga, anyone?)—but that would involve too many assumptions about quality across all the different genres from rock to electronica.
What may explain the change is that people are pirating less music. We can imagine this is being propelled by developments in the digital-music industry, with more and more novel ways to consume music online courtesy of systems like Spotify or Rhapsody—each a system that could easily spur a purchase of a track or album if a customer really enjoys it. We can also see the rise in smartphone tech playing a role here: It's actually easier to tap "buy" on a song on an iPhone or Android unit than it is to pirate the track, drag it to your music management software, and sync it up to your phone.
The notion is backed up by new data from the U.K. that shows music piracy the other side of the Atlantic is actually slightly in decline since 2008. Film and TV-show piracy is massively on the upswing, on the other hand, because of policies in the entertainment industry to delay film and TV show showings in different provinces—particularly from the U.S. to the U.K. On the other hand, records are most often released globally at roughly the same time.
The growth of cloud music lockers from Google, Amazon, and Apple, which make it even easier to consume your own record collection on mobile devices, could further this trend—particularly thanks to deals like Amazon's $0.99 promotion of Lady Gaga's newest album. And let's not forget that Apple's also managed to legitimize a way of collecting cash from pirated copies of music via its paid iTunes Match service.
[Image: Flickr user robboudon]