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An OK year for the British record industry despite album sales decline

By | Published on Thursday 7 January 2010

Album sales continued to decline, single sales continued to boom and digital accounts for an increasingly large part of the market. I think we could probably have written the same summary of the UK record industry in 2009 this time last year.

The British albums market was down 3.5% in 2009 in terms of units sold, according to new data from the Official Charts Company and BPI published yesterday. The decline in overall album sales has slowed a little, despite the continued slump in CD sales, because the digital album is slowly taking off.

That said, the digital marketplace is still very much dominated by single track sales, despite various efforts – including price deals and digital extras – designed to persuade music fans that they want to buy an artist’s complete digital album, space-fillers included, rather than just cherry picking the best tracks. Arguably the success of services like Spotify will hinder the industry’s efforts to prop up the album format in the digital domain, given that consumers can now preview whole albums at their leisure, decide which songs they like, and then download them as single tracks from an a la carte digital store like 7Digital or iTunes. 

According to the new BPI data, digital sales accounted for 12.5% of the albums market in 2009, while in the single tracks domain 98% are sold digitally rather than on CD. Overall single sales were up 32.7%, with a record breaking 152m singles sold across the year.

Given the state of the British economy last year, coming at the end of what had already been a difficult decade for the record industry, the BPI reckons that last year’s overall performance was pretty good, though these stats deal with units sold rather than revenues generated. Given some of the units-sold-boost came from price cuts, it will be interesting to see how the industry faired in 2009 in terms of overall money generated, stats that should follow in due course.

The record industry trade body said that a number of successful artist launches in 2009, in particular the arrival of Lady Gaga, the tedium of JLS and the ongoing phenomenon that is Susan Boyle, coupled with big selling albums from the likes of Kings Of Leon, Robbie Williams, Black Eyed Peas, Paolo Nutini and Michael Buble, and the reinvention of Cheryl Cole as a solo star, all helped the sector counter its ongoing decline last year. Meanwhile efforts to get more CDs into non-traditional music retail outlets, from supermarkets to fashion chain Peacocks to gaming chain Game, helped overcome the disappearance of two major music sellers from the high street at the start of the year.

BPI boss man Geoff Taylor said this: “As the way in which consumers find and purchase music continues to evolve, it is vital that music companies can continue to invest in new artists and support new digital services. Meaningful action to tackle online piracy is more critical than ever before. Without it, investment in new services and new music will be stifled. Despite difficult trading conditions and the ever-present competition from illegal downloading, UK music sales remained relatively resilient during 2009. While sales of physical CDs continue to trend downwards, music fans are clearly responding to the explosive growth of digital retailers and outlets selling and streaming music in the UK – 2009’s record singles result is clearly encouraging”.

Meanwhile Kim Bayley of the Entertainment Retailers Association added: “2009 started on a low note after the collapse of Woolworths and Zavvi, but entertainment retailers across the board worked with their suppliers to end the year with a far better result than anyone had expected. We are particularly pleased at the progress made by digital and internet retailers. The key to maintaining momentum in 2010 will be to maintain a flow of innovative and compelling product to the consumer”.