Music “Album Sales” Down 20 Percent this Xmas Season?

According to Ars Technica, according to Variety, according to Nielsen Soundscan (I know, jeez.), holiday “Album Sales” are down majorly this year.

This appears to be whole albums, not total sales. I’m going to go see if I can track down the info on the overall market for music sales altogether. Although it wont surprise me if that information is really hard to find…

Update: The numbers are indeed hard to get a hold of. The RIAA’s numbers are a year behind and Nielsen’s numbers are under Lock and Key, and I can’t find any way to validate how accurate either of them are, not even compared to one another.

Also, is this announcement only referring to actual physical copies of albums or online too?

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I’ll be back later if I can find some better numbers, or at least some interesting alternate illusions.

Update:

The Variety article has no link to any sources. I swear, these days, sources should be mandatory for anything that wants to call itself “professional journalism,” since everyone’s always making such a big stink about the difference in Journalistic Integrity between major publications and “New Media.” (Had to say that. Now back to the information or whatever you want to call it)

Originally I assumed that such grave news about plummeting music sales must have come from the RIAA. But the RIAA’s press releases (News Room) are mostly just about all the letters they’re sending to colleges threatening them with legal action.

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And actually, their site (Key Statistics) doesn’t even contain any current numbers on sales.

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It only goes up to 2006. (Maybe they should subscribe to the Nielsen thing)
So anyways, where is this information, I mean beyond all the vague language? Ars Technica’s article says:

“Variety has the latest music numbers from Nielsen Soundscan on music sales from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. In 2007, 83.9 million albums were sold, down 21.4 million from last year. A 20 percent drop in sales is more than a blip; it’s serious trouble.”

And Variety’s article says only:

“overall music sales during the Christmas shopping season were down an astounding 21% from last year. From the week of Thanksgiving up through the day before Christmas Eve, 83.9 million albums were sold, a decrease of 21.38 million from 2006’s 105.28 million. “

And

“The week leading up to Christmas saw sales rise a whopping 42% over the previous week. But when the week’s sales of 25.57 million are compared to the same week from ’06, they represent an 18% drop. “

(There is a bunch of specifics about individual Albums, none of which I am personally too concerned with.)

Again, is this is for all Legal Music Distribution or all music? Down 20%? Really? Or is it just “album sales?” And if it’s just albums, does that mean all album sales including online sales or what? What does this mean?!

I want to see the source for this. Over at Nielsen Soundscan’s site, I found this only this:

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(One Link to a Press Release from back in April 2006 about how they’re working with the Italian version of the RIAA, the FIMI. I’m happy to hear it.)

The thing is, you have to pay to get access to Nielsen’s numbers. Here’s what they say on their site:

“Nielsen SoundScan is an information system that tracks sales of music and music video products throughout the United States and Canada. Sales data from point-of-sale cash registers is collected weekly from over 14,000 retail, mass merchant and non-traditional (on-line stores, venues, etc.) outlets. Weekly data is compiled and made available every Wednesday. Nielsen SoundScan is the sales source for the Billboard music charts. “

How do they do it?

“The requirements for reporting sales to Nielsen SoundScan are that your store has Internet access and a Point Of Sales (POS) Inventory System. Nielsen SoundScan does not provide a retailer with a POS System, but can recommend companies who are familiar with our needs. A POS System means that you scan the bar codes of the products you sell. We have a specific format that is required for submitting sales to Nielsen SoundScan. It is a simple text file, consisting of all the UPC’s sold and the quantities per UPC on a weekly basis.

There are two methods for transmitting data. The first is a dial-up through our 1-800 phone number. The second, and preferred method is an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) transmission. We will assign you a unique user name and password to transfer your data to Nielsen SoundScan. For Internet Sellers or Mail Order companies, the methods of transmissions are the same. However, the file submitted will consist of all the UPC’s sold and a corresponding zip code as to where the product was shipped, with an indication of a sales or return. All information is confidential, and as a benefit of being a data provider, we will provide you with specific weekly reports in exchange for your data.”

Apparently, someone at Variety gets the weekly Nielsen Soundscan report and decided that holiday sales have fallen 20% or so this year compared to last year.

How on earth are we supposed to know if this is accurate information?

Questions:

  • What percentage of All Available Music is followed by Nielsen? Is that information available somewhere?
  • What percentage of All Retail Sales Locations, including online stores, does Nielsen Soundscan collect data from? Is that information available anywhere?
  • (and while we’re at it) Since labels opt-in to be monitored by Nielsen, do they ever have any advantage in not opting something into the Nielsen system, especially since the ‘Billboard Charts’ are based on these numbers? Does that ever happen? Just curious.

[Been reading on the Wikipedia]

The RIAA claims to not rely on Nielsen’s numbers because they have their own system of tracking shipments to retailers minus returns, while Nielsen only tracks sales and doesn’t figure in returns. Also, the RIAA’s claims their system accounts for 100% of sales (including adjustment for returns), although they also claim you have to pay to be tracked by them, so they must mean that they track 100% of the sales they track (what?).

More Questions:

  • How do Nielsen’s numbers compare to the RIAA’s? Is there a place to find that information? Is it secret? If the RIAA doesn’t trust Nielsen, why should we? Why should Variety?
  • What percentage of All Available Music is monitored/represented by the RIAA?

The questions about “All Available Music” are particularly important because if you’re familiar with the idea of “The Long Tail,” you know that the many, many non-top-hits, account for more sales than the hits do. So if the long-tail of music sales is not being tracked or represented as well by the RIAA or Nielsen, the numbers for overall music sales are WAY off.

Anyways, you’ve followed me along a path to nowhere with this. I guess my point is that when “the numbers” seem to say something, whether or not it is true might depend on whose numbers you’re dealing with, how they got them and what their motivation in providing them is.

Personally, I don’t trust the RIAA at all. And I don’t have any reason to believe that Nielsen is reliable either. As for Variety, I don’t really care, but I can say, as far as this article they put out referring to an “Industry Slump,” I don’t understand what their motivation is. And the lack of details is altogether annoying.

Also, this is a prime example of how Bullshit Parades in the Media happen. I don’t know if I’m more annoyed by Ars Technica or by Variety, but Variety’s article is definitely deceptive, mixing up “overall music sales” and “album sales” as if they are the same thing, and Ars Technica’s article just passes the buck, taking no responsibility, and saying “Variety’s got the numbers…” and then trumpeting what is so obviously not clear.

What a headache.

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