Five surprises for the music industry in 2009

From a decade-end sales spurt to the resurgence of vinyl, 2009 had some surprises - and good news - for the beleaguered music industry.

Douglas Pizac/AP/File
In this January 28, 2009 file photo, Michael Jackson basks in the audience applause at the conclusion of his final concert in Los Angeles.

Following years of lost revenue from illegal file sharing, the recording industry finally has a reason to cheer: unit sales rose in 2009 for the second year in a row, up by 1.54 billion in 2009, a 2.1 percent increase from the previous year.

About 40 percent of those sales were digital, Nielsen SoundScan says in its year-end report, up from 32 percent in 2008. That’s might seem like a no-brainer considering how consumers interact with music today via MP3 players and computers. Here are some less obvious trends:

Vinyl continues to spin. Remember those black discs? When the industry first started phasing them out for CDs in the mid-1990s, vinyl records were thought to be going the way of the 8-track tape. Not any more. A new generation of enthusiasts is responsible for rising vinyl sales. Nielsen SoundScan reports that vinyl sales grew 33 percent in 2009 from the previous year, an all-time sales record for the format.

Michael Jackson lives on in his music. By the second half of his career, Mr. Jackson had become more of a tabloid star and his music sales had slipped accordingly. Jackson is not on Nielsen SoundScan’s bestsellers list (which dates back to 1991), but after his death in 2009, Jackson's albums sold over eight million copies – twice as much as reigning teen star, Taylor Swift, making Jackson the biggest-selling artist for the year.

The Beatles are back. The Fab Four broke up in 1970, but with almost 3.3 million in album sales, the Beatles were the biggest-selling group of 2009. They also had the top selling album of the decade with “Beatles 1,” a best-of collection that sold nearly 12 million copies. Rapper Eminem was the best-selling artist of the decade with 32.2 million units sold, and the Beatles were right behind with 30 million units.

Country is king. Even though country music was the fourth-highest selling music category in terms of album sales (following alternative, Christian/gospel, and classical), country music stars dominated the last decade. Eight of the top 10 most-played artists of the decade – on radio, TV, or the Internet – were country stars. Taylor Swift's "Fearless" was the biggest-selling album of 2009.

Starbucks is saving music retail. Mass shuttering of Tower Records and Virgin Megastores outlets are making it harder to purchase a CD, but the slack has been taken up by non-traditional outlets such as Starbucks and CVS. Sales at these alternate outlets reached an all-time high in 2009 with 110 million units sold, accounting for about 30 percent of all album sales. Non-traditional outlets were the only retail segment to see growth in music sales, compared with losses at mass merchant stores, chain outlets, and independent music stores.


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