U.S. album sales continued to decline in 2006, down nearly 5 percent from the previous year, but total music sales were up thanks to a huge increase in digital downloads.
About 588.2 million albums were sold in 2006 — a 4.9 percent decline from 2005, according to year-end sales figures released Thursday by Nielsen SoundScan.
But digital sales increased by 65 percent over the previous year, with 582 million tracks sold, and digital album sales more than doubled, with nearly 33 million sold.
Overall music sales increased by more than 19 percent in 2006, but that number includes all albums, singles, music videos and digital downloads.
Billboard magazine senior correspondent Brian Garrity said consumers are buying more single songs and fewer albums, and that makes it harder for the record industry to maintain profits.
“At the end of the day, pop music is a singles driven business, so why would I want to buy a whole album?” Garrity said.
In the final week of 2006, Beyonce’s song “Irreplaceable” set a new record for a single digital track, selling 269,000 copies in one week.
And for the first time ever a digital song — “Bad Day” by Daniel Powter — sold more than 2 million copies in one year, thanks to the play it got as the send-off song on “American Idol.”
Another song from TV — The Fray’s “How to Save a Life,” which was featured on “Grey’s Anatomy” — was the No. 7 digital song for the year.
“TV is the new radio, in that people discover new songs through TV,” Garrity said.
The top-selling album of the year was a soundtrack inspired by the Disney Channel movie “High School Musical,” which sold more than 3.7 million copies.
Another Disney-inspired soundtrack aimed at ’tweens — “Hannah Montana” — was the No. 8-selling album and sold nearly 2 million copies.
“It was a big year for ’tweens,” Garrity said. “They were the big market movers.”
Albums by Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood, Nickelback and Justin Timberlake rounded out the top five.
But the top sellers in 2006 were no match for the biggest albums of previous years. Mariah Carey sold nearly 5 million copies of “The Emancipation of Mimi” in 2005, and 50 Cent’s “Massacre” was close behind at 4.8 million.
Rap and R&B were hardest hit by the decline in album sales. Rap album sales fell by more than 20 percent — from more than 75 million albums sold in 2005, to fewer than 60 million. R&B plummeted more than 18 percent.
Alternative music — an amorphous category that embraces everything from U2 to Gwen Stefani and John Mayer — also saw album sales fall 9.2 percent.
It was a better year for country music, which saw its album sales fall by less than 1 percent.
Country group Rascal Flatts was the biggest selling act in the United States last year, with nearly 5 million albums sold and nearly 4 million digital track sales.
Of the 10 top-selling artists last year, five were country acts (Rascal Flatts, Johnny Cash, Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw and Keith Urban). The Dixie Chicks also had the No. 9 album of the year, despite virtually no play on country radio.
Classical heartthrobs Andrea Bocelli and Il Divo helped give classical music the largest percentage sales boost of any genre — a 22.5 percent increase in 2006.
Christian/gospel and Latin music also saw slight increases in album sales.
Larry Kenswil, president of Universal Music Group’s global digital division, said companies are looking at new ways to profit from digital downloads.
Some ideas include using advertising to let consumers listen to tracks for free, or creating new products that fall somewhere between a 99-cent single and the cost of a whole album — maybe a package of three songs and a video, Kenswil said.