Digital Music Takes a Dive as Record Sales Slip Again in 2013

Streaming services have picked up slack, but album sales in nearly all genres dipped last year

Robin Thicke  Justin Timberlake
Jason Kempin/DCNYRE2014/Getty Images for DCP; Christopher Polk/AMA2013/Getty Images for DCP
Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake
By |

Digital music sales, once believed to be the record industry's savior after years of Napster-induced piracy, dropped for the first time since the iTunes store launched in 2003, according to new year-end data from Nielsen SoundScan. Track sales decreased 6 percent, despite massive hits such as Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" (at nearly 6.5 million) and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "Thrift Shop" (6.1 million), while overall album sales, including CDs, were down 8 percent. Streaming services including YouTube and Spotify picked up some of the slack, increasing 32 percent, to more than 118 billion total streams, which, according to SoundScan, is the revenue equivalent of 59 million in sales.

Check Out Rolling Stone's 50 Best Albums of 2013

The bleak way to view the massive streaming numbers is that YouTube, Spotify and the rest are cannibalizing digital-music sales — a trend that is likely to accelerate as Beats by Dre and YouTube prepare new services as early as this month. But YouTube's built-in ad revenue and Spotify's $10-a-month premium subscriptions are also helping artists and labels make up for lost sales. "We're still not at that inflection point, or tipping point," Tom Corson, president of RCA Records, home of Justin Timberlake, told Rolling Stone late last year, before the data came in. "We haven't seen that moment, but we're confident it'll come."

One potential reason sales slowed down so much in 2013 — Adele's 21 finally dropped off the charts after more than two years of dominance. It sold more than 5.8 million copies in 2011, and another 5.2 million in 2012, and nothing picked up the blockbuster slack last year. Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience was the best-selling album, with 2.4 million copies; after that came Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP2 (1.7 million), Luke Bryan's Crash My Party (1.5 million), Imagine Dragons' Night Visions (1.4 million) and Bruno Mars' Unorthodox Jukebox (not quite 1.4 million). It's easy to blame streaming for these comparatively low sales, but 2013's releases clearly weren't as strong, minus Adele (whose album recently became the first to hit 3 million in digital sales) or Taylor Swift.

Every genre dropped significantly in album sales, with the exception of R&B (an increase in 1.2 percent, perhaps owing to Beyoncé's surprise end-of-2013 release, which sold a total of 1.3 million) and hip-hop (which increased 2.2 percent, thanks to Eminem as well as Jay Z's Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail, which hit more than 1 million in sales, not counting the millions of free copies Samsung packaged with its new smartphone over the summer). And even as the record business shifts from CDs to downloads to streaming, throwback vinyl sales continue to rise — LPs increased 33 percent in 2013.