With Teeth: Some Thoughts on the BPI 2011 Sales Report

Today the BPI published their 2011 sales report. You can read the summary here, but some key headlines were as follows:

CD sales: 86.2m
Digital Album Sales: 28.6m
Digital Single Sales: 175.1m
Vinyl Sales: 337,000

Top 3 Albums of 2011:
Adele – 21
Michael Bublé – Christmas
Bruno Mars – Doo Wops & Hooligans

Top 3 Singles of 2011:
Adele – Someone Like You
Maroon 5 ft. Christina Aguilera – Moves Like Jagger
LMFAO – Party Rock Anthem

I tweeted my intitial thoughts on the stats: that CDs are outselling digital downloads by a factor of 3 to 1, which seems to have had a fair few retweets (my point being that despite talk of digital and percentages CD remains by far the dominant format). But what has been interesting is the comments that have come from this report, so I thought I’d grab a moment to share a few of the issues people have raised via Twitter as food for thought:

1. Digital Single Sales
The OCC’s official Twitter account tweeted this morning that “2011 set a new record for singles sold in the UK (over 177.9 million!)”. The impression from this is that singles are a booming market. It is possible that’s the case, however what is being missed here is that “Digital Single Sales” simply means individual track sales, which includes buyers cherry-picking tracks from albums. Most people perceive “single” to mean a specific, separate release with b-side, so wouldn’t include single track sales from albums within this.

2. Vinyl sales
Various people were keen to point out the BPI’s figures only include officially-reported sales – not those coming from direct-to-fan retail. The value of that D2F sales element is open to debate as it is tough to quantify. Topspin and others *are* OCC-compliant, but a valid point is raised here that as vinyl in particular becomes a premium product there are more and more people opting to purchase it direct from artists’ websites. Given the low numbers reported by the BPI it is probably fair to suggest that in truth sales numbers would be higher if all the direct sales were also included.

3. The Christmas effect
The sales of Michael Bublé’s “Christmas” album certainly indicate a few interesting things. Firstly, the obvious one – ie that people will fall back on buying CDs as presents for Christmas as digital items simply don’t make for great gifts. However equally interesting is the demographic here: find the right audience and you can do well from the festive season. Whichever way you look at it, selling enough copies in three months to become the second most purchased album of 2011 is an incredible achievement.

4. What, no streaming data?
Noticeably absent from the report is any mention of streams via Spotify and other such services. In fairness to the BPI though, this one will prove to be a tough one to report on without drawing fire from retailers and other bodies within the industry. Why? Because the value of that information is still hotly debated. If they were to report on the growth of streams, what would that imply by way of revenue? Its a monumental minefield and I don’t envy them the task of including them without pissing off a good few quarters of the business.

Cynics have been quick to point out that the BPI reporting on sales is only half the picture in that it ignores illegal downloads (not to mention unreported sales) and therefore the true nature of how we interact with music. To be fair this is a sales report and not an attempt to quantify actual consumption on the whole – something the BPI covers elsewhere. Nonetheless though, the broader issue here is that we should be careful not to take this report and draw sweeping conclusions from it. No, singles aren’t experiencing some record boost; the data is distorted. No, this isn’t the full picture: sales are happening every day direct from artists websites which, whilst potentially small in number per artist could potentially amount to a much larger whole. Timothy Leary’s “believe nothing, question everything” maxim came to mind when looking at these stats. That isn’t to suggest they’re untrue in any way – merely that we should be wary of false conclusions being drawn.

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