×

Music Sales: Rising from the Ashes?

Adele
Getty Images
Adele

Reports of the death of the music industry have been greatly exaggerated. After years of decline, total album sales (both physical and digital) were up 1.3 percent last year. The growth, of course, came from digital, which for the first time topped physical music sales. Track sales grew 8.5 percent while digital album sales flew 19.5 percent higher.

British artist Adele deserves a huge amount of credit for 2011’s big uptick. Her album “21” sold a whopping 5.82 million copies, more than twice the second-most popular title.

The music industry hasn’t seen one-year sales that high for a single album since 2004, when Usher sold nearly 8 million copies of his “Confessions” album.

So what makes Adele so huge?

Her throaty sound is hard to categorize, so it’s been all over the airwaves. Columbia shored up younger listeners with a big social media push and careful TV placement. And Adele’s retro style also appealed to older audiences, who are more likely to buy CDs.

Will 2012 see such lofty gains? It depends on whether we see another Adele, and whether she and the other big names can issue hit albums. The second-biggest album of the year was Michael Buble’s “Christmas,” which sold 2.45 million copies; its traditional sound clearly targeting an older demographic. In third place Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” sold 2.1 million copies, followed by Lil Wayne, whose “Tha Carter IV” sold 1.92 million copies.

Now the pressure’s on for the labels to break the next Adele, and for established stars to keep performing. This year we’ll see new releases from big names: U2, Madonna, Pearl Jam, and Bruce Springsteen, 50 Cent, and Aerosmith. The question is whether we’ll see a single album appeal as broadly as Adele’s did last year.

CD album sales stemmed their slide—dropping less than six percent last year after a nearly 20 percent drop from 2009 to 2010. That is largely due to deep discounting—Amazon briefly offered digital downloads of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” for just 99 cents, which doesn’t bode particularly well for CDs long-term prospects.

One big surprise: Vinyl is back in style. Last year more vinyl albums were sold than in any other year since 1991, when SoundScan began tracking data. And this is the fourth consecutive year that vinyl has set new records. Whether it’s Adele’s voice or LPs, it seems what’s old is new again.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com