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Music sales for 2008 ride digital coattails

Industry tracker Nielsen says total music sales were up 10 percent year over year, with strong growth in the digital realm. Also: a comeback of sorts for vinyl.

Jon Skillings Director of copy editing
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is director of copy editing at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing tech publications back when the web was just getting under way. He writes occasionally, on topics from GPS to James Bond.
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  • 30 years experience at tech and consumer publications, print and online. Five years in the US Army as a translator (German and Polish).
Jon Skillings
2 min read

Digital music, long the bane of the music industry, may finally be something that record label executives can smile about.

For 2008, total music sales rose 10 percent to 1.51 billion units sold, up from 1.36 billion units the year before, according to industry tracker Nielsen. Units tallied include physical albums, digital albums and tracks, and music videos.

Music image

The biggest contributor to the growth was digital music, Nielsen reported. There were 1.07 billion digital tracks sold in 2008, up 27 percent from 2007, and there were 65.8 million digital albums sold, up 32 percent.

Those numbers square with recent reports on music downloads. For the third quarter, for instance, legal music downloads from sites such as iTunes and AmazonMP3 were up 29 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to NPD Group.

And coincidentally or not, the Recording Industry Association of America in December said that it would dramatically curb its practice of suing people that it suspected of illegal sharing of copyrighted music.

All told, according to Nielsen, the number of albums sold--including CDs, LPs, and digital albums--fell 14 percent to 428 million in the year just ended. Physical albums sold through e-commerce sites fell 8.6 percent to 27.5 million units from 2007 to 2008.

Universal Music Group came out on top among record labels for total album sales in 2008 (31.5 percent market share, down ever so slightly from 2007) as well as for digital albums and digital tracks (market shares of 27.8 percent and 31.8 percent, respectively). Sony BMG was second overall, with 25.3 percent of all album sales for the year, Nielsen said.

The top-selling digital song for 2008 was "Bleeding Love" from Leona Lewis, with 3.4 million units sold, while Rihanna was the top-selling digital artist, with 9.9 million units sold.

Radiohead claimed top honors in the vinyl realm, both as an artist and for one of its albums. The rock band sold 61,200 vinyl albums during the year, of which 25,800 were its In Rainbows album. In 2007, In Rainbows was the focal point of an experiment by Radiohead to let people pay whatever they saw fit to download the album.

Nielsen noted that vinyl sales set a record in its SoundScan era, at 1.88 million units sold, beating the previous record of 1.5 million from 2000. (Nielsen SoundScan tracks point-of-purchase sales of recorded music.)

Nielsen stats on digital music sales.
Leona Lewis, Rihanna, and Coldplay were among the top-selling artists in the digital realm for 2008. Nielsen