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It's been more than a decade since Napster sent the music industry into a tailspin, and record labels are still adapting to the digital reality they find themselves in.

For better or worse, the future of music is not the CD, and a huge recent milestone confirms what we have known for a long time: that it's largely digital.

According to Nielsen and Billboard's 2011 Music Industry Report, digital music sales surpassed physical music sales for the first time ever in 2011. All told, 1.27bn digital tracks were sold last year, accounting for 50.3% of all music sales.

That's a welcome 8.4% jump from 2010. Even more welcome: growth isn't just being seen in the sale of digital singles; according to Nielsen and Billboard, one in three album purchases were digital in 2011. Four years ago, just 5.5% of album sales were digital.

Genres benefitting the most from consumer demand for digital albums are rap, electronica, R&B and Latin. All saw 20% plus growth last year, with rap and electronica digital album sales rising an impressive 42%.

So is it time to declare the music industry's worst days behind it?

That remains to be seen. 2011 saw an album (Adele's 21) move more than 5m units,  the first time an album has achieved 5m in sales since 2004. But the growth in album sales doesn't mean that selling music (as opposed to concert tickets and merchandise) will net the same profit that it once did.

That really shouldn't matter to record labels, of course. Markets change, and reminiscing about much money you were making 20 years ago is not nearly as productive as maximizing how much you're making now.

From this perspective, the music industry should focus less on what it can't control, like piracy at the consumer level, and more on what it can control, like pricing, distribution and supporting quality customer experiences, particularly on digital platforms.

Patricio Robles

Published 6 January, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2419 more posts from this author

Comments (2)


cd printing

It's services like Twitter and Last.fm which are killing it for the music industry. They are very easy to use.

almost 5 years ago



It seems to me that iTunes has revolutionized the music industry in more ways than one. You only need to look at how independent music sales have grown. It is very easy nowadays to distribute your music without a large record label. Today I sell my own brainwave entrainment music internationally via iTunes and Amazon. 20 years ago that would be unimaginable.

over 4 years ago

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