July 23, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Paid Music Downloads Are Declining… But Why?

A chart showing paid downloads over the years

Provided by Nielsen SoundScan to Digital Music News

Paid downloads, the songs people pay for individually the way they do with CDs, have officially stopped their ascent. According to Nielsen SoundScan data, digital song sales dropped 2.3 percent over the first half of 2013 over the same period last year. In terms of the straight numbers, music fans purchased 698 million song downloads in the first six months of last year, and only 682.2 million this year.

This marks the first time that paid music downloads have declined for two consecutive reporting periods.

The consensus on why this is happening appears to be that more people are switching to on-demand streaming services such as Rdio, Rhapsody, and Spotify, which obviate the need to purchase much of what is on iTunes.

For the serious music fan, it makes more economic sense to pay $10 per month for access to everything than to pay $1 for access to a single song. However, convenience plays a part in this too.

With paid downloads comes personal storage, meaning that you, the purchaser, must find a way to store your music. This makes you, in addition to being a music fan, your own “music system administrator,” who must not only purchase, sync, and back up hard drives, but must also decide whether to pay for a proprietary service like Apple iCloud or Amazon CloudDrive, or to use Google’s free music locker, which limits you to 20,000 songs, and lacks a native iOS client.

The difficulties of moving music collections from one computer to another, from computer to smartphone or from one service to another has become tedious, and not always even possible, as the number of divergent options for acquiring music has grown.

The users of on-demand streaming services don’t need to worry about any of this stuff. They just pay their $10 per month and can access just about anything, anywhere, with the ability to store that music on their devices for when an internet connection is slow or unavailable. This platform-neutral approach puts the music first, and the hardware second, which seems to work for an increasing number of music fans.

Yes, we realize that plenty of rare, new, or prized music is not available on these streaming services, and that specific artists sometimes pull their albums for whatever reason. You’re always free to download those (and, in the case of Google Play Music All Access, upload them alongside your on-demand tracks, or in the case of Spotify, import them).

There’s only one big downside, for those of us who have been at this music game since physical formats ruled it — you don’t get to feel like you “own” your music anymore. Judging from this unprecedented decline in paid music downloads, more people are willing to put up with that, or might be unfamiliar with the concept entirely.

  • Anonymous

    Because of streaming – both paid subscriptions like Spotify and YouTube

  • Summy

    I don’t really feel like paying for downloading music when I can use a free music streaming site to listen to whatever I want. I use Torch Music and I’m really happy with it, I haven’t even thought of going back to downloading once.

  • John C

    FIrstly MP3 sales have clearly declined 4 times consecutively in the recent past from your chart. Secondly there’s a much bigger and more important downside – streaming doesn’t pay anything. A million streams might make you $750 or less. Probably less. On Spotify it’ll make you about $290.

  • Hydro

    What this article neglects to point out is that while single track sales were down -2.3%, digital album sales were up +6.3% and vinyl was up +33.5% (according to the same Nielsen SoundScan data).

    To me, this indicates that streaming services are actually moving us from singles back to albums, and increasing download sales. When consumers can sample more music, they discover that there can be more than just one good track on a release.

    On a related note, now that I can lease a car… why would I ever want to buy one again? These formats can all live side by side depending on the user, as they all have their advantages (most notably audio quality).

  • Demic (Music in Bio)

    I really think that Youtube is the major problem. Whenever you hear of a new track being released by an artist, you head straight to youtube. And just play it over and over. I wonder how youtube ad money compares to these Spotify rates.