Album sales just hit the lowest point in recorded history

Vinyl record enthusiasts queue up for Record Store Day in Soho, London.
Matthew Chattle/Shutterstock

Two weeks ago, reports emerged that music streaming is on the decline amid quarantine. This might have been a confounding result, until you think of the ways in which streaming is tied to normal life. For many users, music streaming is inextricably linked to routines that are completely put on hold during extended social distancing. Commutes, gym, retail shops, and any number of other sources for music listening are all paused indefinitely. According to a recent Billboard report, the broader hit to the music industry is reflected in the latest set of album sales data.

For the week ending March 19, overall album sales — tallying all formats, including digital downloads, CDs, vinyl, and more — hit its lowest mark in recorded history. That week’s 1.52 million units sold make for the lowest figure since Nielsen Music began tracking in 1991. This was a 29% decline from the previous week, and a dip from the previous low of 1.65 million, which occurred during the week ending January 16 earlier this year. Further, Billboard estimates that it could be the smallest weekly sum since albums became the predominant format for music listening in the 1960s.

This is ostensibly a result of brick and mortar record stores closing across the country, as physical album sales plunged to 979,000 during the same period. It registered as a 36% decline from the previous frame, and was a hair below the previous low-point of 1.05 million sold in the week ending July 11, 2019. Billboard also estimates this to be the lowest figure since at least the mid-1960s.

These track with the broader trend lines of album sales over the past decade, as streaming eats a wider share of the music consumption pie. But this precipitous decline could spell doom for more sectors of the music industry than was initially thought. Estimates for the week ending on March 26 could see a potential uptick, with The Weeknd turning in the largest individual sales week of the year (mostly thanks to concert ticket and merch bundles.) But the week ending on the 19th makes for a stronger indicator of what’s to come, underscoring the reason why many major delays have been announced for artists like Lady Gaga, Haim, and Sam Smith. (Smith has said the delay is to change their album title from To Die For, which is fair, but also good cover for other considerations.)

Album sales are obviously a small piece of the industry-wide pain — and so clearly diminished compared to what grieving families, medical professionals, and grocery and warehouse workers are facing every day — but help reflect the totality of this pandemic’s damage.