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On the Charts: Adele Ruled a Dismal Year for Record Sales

Plus: LMFAO and Lady Antebellum get a late boost from iTunes discounts

January 4, 2012 4:00 PM ET
adele munich
Adele performs at Kesselhaus in Munich.
Stefan M. Prager/Redferns

WINNER OF THE (LAST) YEAR: No guessing necessary: Adele. Her final U.S. album sales tally, according to today's year-end Nielsen Soundscan data, was 5.82 million. That dwarfs the best-selling album of 2010, Eminem's Recovery, by more than 2.8 million – and helps explain why, for the first time since 2004, record sales actually increased by 1 percent. Beyond Adele's 21, though, things were a bit thin. Number Two was Michael Bublé's Christmas, at 2.45 million, which would have ranked just Number Five had it come out the previous year. After that was Lady Gaga's Born This Way, which seems like a blockbuster at 2.1 million but needed an Amazon MP3 discount of $1.99 to move several hundred thousand copies in its first week. LMFAO, the year's dominant single-seller, finished second to the Adele juggernaut with 5.47 million copies of "Party Rock Anthem," compared to 5.81 million of "Rolling in the Deep." (Interestingly, Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks" didn't make the Top Five.)

LOSER OF THE YEAR: The record industry, as usual. But wait, you say – didn't we just mention sales were up for the first time in seven years? Yes, but that 1 percent sales increase refers to albums in general, both physical and digital; CDs themselves were down 6 percent. So the product with the greatest profit margin continues to slide while the product with the lowest profit margin (digital songs, up 8.5 percent) continues to grow. Plus, the 1 percent uptick may be due to a variety of deep discounts, from Amazon to big-box chains. "When you're selling $5 discs at Walmart and Best Buy, music revenue is actually down," a source at a major label told us recently. "The idea that the industry has somehow hit bottom, and might be hitting an inflection point, I think, is a mistake." To sum up, things that are booming: Adele and digital songs in general. Things that are not booming: pretty much everything else.

AND NOW, BACK TO THE WEEK: We spent much of our holiday downloading $5 albums from Google Music (we snagged Rihanna, Drake, the Roots and Kurt Vile that way, thanks for asking), but the biggest chart-boosting discounts came via the iTunes Store. Its $6.99 albums included Florence + the Machine's Ceremonials (which jumped to Number Three on the iTunes albums chart this week, and from Number 20 to Number Six overall, with 47,000 sales), LMFAO's Sorry for Party Rocking (which sold poorly all year despite its massive singles, but jumped to Number Six this week on iTunes and from Number 16 to Number Five overall) and Lady Antebellum's Own the Night (Number Two on iTunes, from Number Six to Number Four overall). The lesson? Cheap albums sell. That's a bummer for the record industry, which is on the brink of dropping from four major labels to three this year, but it's good news for pretty much everybody else.

LAST WEEK: Michael Bublé Gets a Boost from 'Saturday Night Live'

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“Whoomp! (There It Is)”

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