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Music streaming is strong but you can't argue with 15 years of sliding sales

Australians are spending more than ever on streaming according to new sales figures. But while the recording industry is praising the rise of digital music, streaming can't staunch the heavy losses seen in the past 15 years.

Deyan Georgiev/Corbis

The stats are in: Digital music streaming has just notched up its best year on record in Australia.

But while streaming sales led to a boost in overall revenues for the first time since 2012, the bigger picture is grim. In the past decade, digital sales have simply not done enough to save the bottom line as physical sales have walked off a cliff.

The Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) has released its wholesale sales figures for 2015, and sales were up 5 percent year on year, with the whole industry valued at a cool AU$333.8 million.

Accounting for 62 percent of the overall market, digital music was strong. Subscription streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, as well as non-subscription players such as YouTube and Vevo, also netted double the sales they did in 2014. But digital downloads of singles and albums were a weak spot, dropping almost 13 percent.

Pulling out the high note in physical sales (which were down "just 3 percent" year on year), ARIA pointed to a "vinyl revival" with the old-school format adored by hipsters nationwide seeing a 38 percent boost in sales.

ARIA CEO Dan Rosen was bullish about today's news, noting that "Australian music fans are consuming more music than ever before" across more formats and media.

But digging beyond today's upbeat release, the picture is much less rosy.

CNET has sifted through ARIA's wholesale numbers for the past 15 years, from the turn of the century (shortly after the birth of Napster in 1999), through 2005 when ARIA first started tracking digital sales, and 2013 when digital sales surpassed physical media for the first time.

While digital music is on the rise, the entire industry is worth just over half what it was in 2001, when physical sales were the only figure ARIA tracked. When you split sales from 2015, physical media is worth less than one fifth of what it was worth in 2001.

While ARIA did not comment on our questions about these declining numbers, the Association pointed towards comments from ARIA Chairman and Sony Music Entertainment Australia CEO Denis Handlin. According to Handlin, the industry has "continued to manage its way through times of challenge and transition" but the work of ensuring artists and labels are "properly rewarded" for their work is "far from over."

There's no doubt the digital sales point towards music fans choosing to pay for the work of recording artists. The arrival of Napster might have changed the value equation in some corners of the Internet, breeding the expectation that music could come for free, but now it looks as though the industry has clawed back some of those losses.

And yet, a tough question remains. With the overall industry cut in half in 15 years, is piracy still a scourge that remains undefeated? Or do streaming services just not bring in the kind of cold hard cash that your local record store used to?