Music sales are drowning in streams

What’s the best album you bought last year?

For most people, the answer is, “Who buys music anymore?”

BuzzAngle Music, a music industry analytics service, issued its year-end report on how people listened to music in 2017, and it’s a depressing read for anyone who loves piercing the shrink wrap on a new CD or has fond memories of spending hours alphabetizing a record collection.

Folks still are listening to music and even buying music … or at least buying access to it. Nearly 377 billion songs were streamed in 2017, a 50 percent increase from last year, and more people are subscribing to services like Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora, so someone is getting a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a penny from all those streams.

The appeal is undeniable. Why pay $10 to $15 for a single CD a month, when for the same amount of money will provide a month of unlimited access to millions and millions of songs on a streaming service? The cynic in me suspects streaming won’t be as affordable once the physical media market fully collapses, but I’m not going to lie, I used and enjoyed the free three months of Pandora premium that I got as a T-Mobile customer.

It makes the old ways of measuring success in the music business irrelevant. In the ’70s and ’80s, dozens of albums each year were certified platinum for selling at least a million copies. Even more went gold, selling at least 500,000 copies.

In 2017, only two releases sold more than a million copies — Taylor Swift’s “reputation” at 1,899,772 and Ed Sheeran, who barely reached that benchmark with 1,042,255 sales for his latest.

However, Sheeran’s single “Shape of You” was streamed 979.3 million times in 2017 or nearly 1,000 times for each album sold. And even he fell short of “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, which collected 1.1 billion streams. According to BuzzAngle, 383 songs were streamed at least 100 million times last year, compared to 226 songs in 2016 and 111 songs in 2015.

With all those streamers, CD continue to decline, dropping 9.4 percent, but digital sales took the biggest hit. Digital album sales dropped 22.6 percent while song sales dropped 23.2 percent.

Sixty songs sold at least a million copies digitally in 2015. The number slid to 36 in 2016. In 2017 the number of million-selling songs was 14, a decline of more that 75 percent in two years.

More songs were streamed on the average day (1.67 billion) than were sold digitally for the entire year (563.7 million).

The one bright spot for retailers is vinyl. Sales increased just over 20 percent compared to 2016 and now account for more than 10 percent of all physical sales.

Nostalgia still is the primary driver for vinyl buyers. Pop, R&B and hip hop dominate the charts, but more than half of the albums sold on vinyl are categorized as rock.

Using consumption charts, which factor in streams from places like Spotify and YouTube video views as well as physical sales, the top 10 albums of 2017 were releases by Sheeran, Swift, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Bruno Mars, Post Malone, The Weeknd, Migos, Imagine Dragons and the soundtrack to “Moana.”

Sheeran is the only one on that list to crack the top 10 for vinyl sales (his “Divide” sold 49,218 copies). With the exception of Amy Winehouse’s “Back in Black” (released 11 years ago) and the soundtrack to the 2016 movie “La La Land,” the rest of the list looks like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame roster: The Beatles (“Abbey Road” and “Sgt. Pepper”), Bob Marley (“Legend”), Pink Floyd (“Dark Side of the Moon”), Michael Jackson (“Thriller”) and Fleetwood Mac (“Rumors”).

The best-selling album of 2017 — with 64,175 copies — was “Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1.” The compilation may be relatively new, but the songs that fill it are 40 years old.

Newer artists turn up in slots 11-25 on the top 25, including Lamar, Harry Styles, Lana Del Ray, twentyone pilots, The Lumineers, Chris Stapleton). But the only way vinyl can continue its renaissance is if the format is embraced by fans of contemporary artists.

If not, by the time I’m able to retire, I may be able to turn my basement into a museum — “Yes, kiddies, this is how people had to store their music in the 20th century …”

Andy Gray is the entertainment writer for the Tribune Chronicle. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com.

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