In 2018, Best Buy decided to stop selling CDs, with the change partly brought on by record labels’ increasing reluctance to even issue them. Both choices are symptoms as well as causes of a seemingly inevitable trend: Buying music is now going out of style nearly as fast as streaming music is rising.
In 2018, album sales fell 18.2 percent from the previous year and song sales fell 28.8 percent, according to U.S. year-end report figures from data company BuzzAngle, which tracks music consumption. Meanwhile, total on-demand music streams, including both audio and video, shot up 35.4 percent. Audio on-demand streams set a new record high in 2018 of 534.6 billion streams, which is up 42 percent from 2017’s 376.9 billion streams.
It’s tricky to compare the specific unit numbers of sales to streams — since such a comparison would be pitting continuous playback of a certain piece of music against a one-time purchase of it — but certain other milestones in the consumption market can help highlight just how much streaming is replacing physical sales and downloads in America.
For instance: Even though total song downloads are still in the hundreds of millions, they’re coming down in scale at the top. In 2018, there was not a single song that broke 1 million sales — compared to 14 songs that reached that figure in 2017, 36 in 2016 and 60 in 2015. At the 2 million sales mark, two songs took that trophy in 2017, while five claimed it in 2016 and 16 songs made it in 2015, throwing the modest figures of this year’s sales into even sharper relief.
The dwindling popularity of music purchases — which is driven by listener preference as well as the music industry’s shift of focus away from sales, giving it a knock-on effect for retailers and buyers — can also be seen in the shares of total album consumption in 2018. (For this breakdown, 1,500 streams is equated to one album sale, which is also equated to 10 song sales.) Of all the music that U.S. fans listened to last year, 77 percent was through music-streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, while 17.3 percent of that was through album sales and 5.7 percent through the sales of singles, according to BuzzAngle’s tally. Those numbers in 2017 were 66 percent, 24.6 percent and 9.3 percent, respectively.
Thanks to the still-expanding streaming industry, overall music consumption grew in double-digits for the second year in the row. But the way we think of “music consumption” itself is permanently changed, and it doesn’t show any signs of going back to what it used to be.