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Adele and MP3s Have Saved the Music Industry, Maybe: Inside 2011′s Mid-Year Sales Report

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Like a masked superhero coming to the aid of a crime-ridden city, Adele has swooped in and single-handedly saved the music industry -- or so Nielsen SoundScan's 2011 mid-year sales report would have you believe. For the first time since 2004, overall music sales are up compared to the same period the previous year. Since January, the 2011 numbers improved over 2010's dismal totals by 8.5 percent through July 3rd. Leading the charge is this year's surprise hit, Adele's 21, which has coasted to 2,517,000 copies so far, with nearly a million in digital sales. The British sensation has helped both album and digital sales improve compared to the 2010 mid-year report.

Also lending a hand in this sales renaissance, thanks to her one big week, is Lady Gaga's Born This Way, which has totaled 1.54 million copies so far. In fact, this mid-year Top Ten is packed with pop: Bruno Mars' Doo-Wops & Hooligans, Justin Bieber's Never Say Never Remixes, Chris Brown's F.A.M.E., Nicki Minaj's Pink Friday, Katy Perry's Teenage Dream and the Now! 37 compilation all reside among the year's best-sellers. Only two acts that play their own instruments, Mumford & Son's Sigh No More and country star Jason Aldean's My Kinda Party, are in the Top 10. Noticeably absent from the pop party: Britney Spears' Femme Fatale, which could only muster sixth place on the digital album sales chart at Number Six with 207,000 downloads; no Spears song made it onto the Digital Tracks chart either. Sad trombone.

Hot on the heels of Eminem's platinum accomplishment, digital sales also seem poised to finally overtake physical sales. (It may not happen this year, but will somewhere down the line.) Digital album sales are up 19 percent, while digital song purchases are up 11 percent compared to the 2010 mid-year report. Total album sales, comprised of both digital and physical purchases, are up only 1 percent, which shows that if not for iTunes and other digital services, this article would have a much more depressing outlook.

For a music industry plagued by illegal downloading, album leaks, and plenty of sites where songs can be accessed easily for no charge, any increase in sales is welcome news. We're not back to pre-Napster sales, but at least it's bounce back from 2010's record lows. Does it mean there's light at the end of the tunnel? It's too early to say, but it could signal that after a decade of record sales decline, the music industry has finally reached and weathered the absolute bottom and is slowly inching its way back north. Or it could be that the bleeding has just temporarily stopped thanks to a pair of tourniquets named Adele and Lady Gaga.

Sales may be up on a whole, but there are still many reasons for concern. So far in 2011, only two albums have managed to sell one million copies, 21 and Born This Way (thanks to Gaga's $1 Amazon deal). In 2010, five albums managed to go platinum by this time: Lady Antebellum's Need You Now, Justin Bieber's My World 2.0, Sade's Soldier of Love, Lady Gaga's The Fame, and Eminem's Recovery, which wrapped up the year as the top-selling album and then became the first to one million digital downloads.

Also worrisome is that sales of physical albums, or those things we call "CDs," are down roughly 11 percent for newer releases. Overall music sales might be up midway through 2011, but it's those MP3s that are doing most of the heavy lifting. (Well, them and Adele.)

Some more interesting tidbits from the halftime report:

• Even though "Rolling in the Deep" is the most unavoidable song since perhaps "The Macarena," Adele's biggest hit isn't even the year's top-selling track. That distinction belongs to Katy Perry's "E.T." If you combine all the different versions of Perry's alien love song, like the Kanye remix and the excellent Noisia dubstep version, "E.T." has been downloaded 4,120,000 times, edging out "Rolling in the Deep" and its 4,089,000 digital purchases.

• Year after year, the "Catalog Albums" charts are usually dominated by Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, Bob Marley's Legend, and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, and you'll find all three on the mid-year recap. But in this year of Adele, it's the songstress' debut album 19 that's tops on both the Catalog Album and Digital Catalog Album charts, combining for nearly a half-million copies.

• Your best-selling vinyl records seven months into 2011: The Beatles' Abbey Road and Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, which are tied at 20,200 records apiece so far. Radiohead's The King of Limbs ranks third, while somehow, Guns n' Roses' Chinese Democracy comes in at eight with 8,200 vinyls sold, more than the Strokes' Angles, even though Axl Rose's latest CD costs just $2. Overall, vinyl sales are up 41 percent, you hipsters.

• Of the 13 musical genres tracked in the mid-year report, only five experienced growth compared to 2010's mid-year sales report. Maybe all those obsolete CD players we've been giving to our grandparents are finally getting some action because Classical Music is somehow up 13 percent over its 2010 numbers, leading all genres. Electronic music comes in second with a 9 percent growth, followed by New Age (the Los Angeles Times said it's coming back!), Rock (up 2 percent), and Rap (up 1 percent). The biggest losers: Soundtracks, which are down 19 percent.

• People can't get enough of the f-bomb barrier being shattered: Cee Lo Green's "F--- You" is the year's third-best selling digital single, despite coming out during summer 2010.

We'll have a better idea on December 31st if this mid-year increase in sales is the good news the music world has been waiting for, but the industry has been ravaged for so long that any inkling of optimism is worth celebrating.

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