Another New Low Atop Billboard Chart

By BEN SISARIO / NY Times  1/19/11

For a stark illustration of how record sales have changed in recent years, take a look at Billboard’s charts this week for albums and track downloads.

For decades the Top 200, the magazine’s album chart, has been the music industry’s standard sales yardstick, since record companies have traditionally earned most of their profits from full CDs. But as record stores have vanished and people have turned to digital music — according to Nielsen SoundScan, digital downloads now account for 46 percent of all music purchases, including both full albums and individual tracks — sales of full albums have fallen. And fallen. For students of the music industry, the weekly album chart can be a grim read, as the numbers hit historic low after historic low.

On last week’s chart Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now” (Big Machine) landed at No. 1 with 52,000 copies sold, the fewest Billboard has recorded for an album in the top slot since 1991, when it began using certified sales records from SoundScan. There were some mitigating factors, of course: it was mid-January, the slowest point in the industry’s annual sales cycle, and the album had been out for three months.

This week, though, the floor fell again. “Showroom of Compassion” (Upbeat), the comeback release by the band Cake, opened at No. 1 with 44,000 sales. (or two  million fewer copies than ’N Sync’s “No Strings Attached,” the record-holder for the biggest opening, sold in its first week in March 2000.) The numbers for the rest of the Top 10 go down from there: the Kentucky rock band Cage the Elephant’s second album, “Thank You Happy Birthday” (Jive), bowed at No. 2 with 39,000 copies sold,  and another new album, the self-titled debut by the country duo Steel Magnolia (released by Ms. Swift’s label, Big Machine), opened at No. 7 with 28,000.

Yet Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, which tracks singles, includes some high numbers. The new song by Britney Spears, “Hold It Against Me,” will open at No. 1 on the chart with 411,000 downloads. That is the most for a female artist since Ms. Swift sold 325,000 downloads of her song “Today Was a Fairytale” a year ago.  “Grenade” by Bruno Mars is the No. 2 track, with 219,000 sales, bringing that song’s four-month total to nearly 2.6 million.

But even digital music has  hit a sales plateau. Last year nearly 1.2 billion individual tracks were sold, an increase of only 1 percent from 2009; the previous year digital track sales rose 8 percent, and the year before that 27 percent.

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