Music Formats: Physical vs Digital

The Story

What's the deal?

We live in a world where waking up in the morning is accompanied by the sound of a computer booting up. From reading news to shopping, the digital platform seems to be the easy choice for most. That would mean that listening to and buying music digitally would be a no-brainer for everyone right? Maybe, but in recent years it seems the good ol' physical copy is still alive. But why would anyone want to go out and buy a dated CD let alone, a record? Well, nothing answers the question why? better than data! I have taken data from Nielsen from last year and up to the middle of this year and analyzed it to see not only what is preferred, but what is selling. Through various charts and graphs the choices of what and why become clear. Let's take a look!


Let's take a look at some data.

Let's start by looking at some comparisons between the consumption of digital music here in the U.S vs that of some other countries. The chart below shows The top 10 songs purchased/downloaded from iTunes on November 13, 2015. I took the four countries, U.S, U.K, Australia and Canada, that had pretty high numbers. It's clear that downloads in the U.S are higher than the other countries represented on the chart by quite a lot. Similarities in what is being downloaded can be seen between the four countries. For example, "Hello" by Adele was number 1 in all the countries represented.

Now, we will focus on the U.S and introduce physical copy sales and radio. The chart below shows sales in three different formats: physical, digital, and streams/radio. Obviously the number of streams and radio plays are much higher than the sales, but the streams are from some on-demand services like Spotify which can be paid for. That means that the artists are still getting paid something. The artist also get paid by radio plays. Pharell Williams took the lead in the radio plays and streams category because of his smash hit "Happy" which was extremely popular as mostly everyone knows. Taylor Swift also did well due to her hit "Shake it Off" which was also quite popular. Hovering over the bars reveals that even the artist that look under-represented on this chart, were not in such bad shape. For example. Lorde sold 4.4 million units digitally.

(Note: Though some numbers on this chart appear to be 0, that does not necessarily mean the artist sold 0 units. It only means that the artists' sales did not make the top 10 in the Nielsen report and therefore were not represented.)

So, what is being sold/bought and by who? The following chart shows the 2014 top 10 overall sales in total. They are divided into different formats. In this case, physical CDs dominate by almost 4 million units. Clicking the columns reveals the individual albums and their total. The top sellers in each format may say something about who's buying. For example, the Frozen soundtrack is the has the most CD sales. Maybe parents buying the Frozen soundtrack to appease their children had something to do with why it sold so many units. It's easy to pop in a CD in the car with the kids and let them sing along. If we move over to digital we can see that Taylor Swift's album 1989 took the top spot in sales. Again, we can make the assumption that age had something to do with these sales. Taylor Swift is very popular among teens and teens today are very tech savvy, therefore why wouldn't they buy something that goes straight to their computer or mobile device where they spend most of their time anyway? Lastly, we go over to vinyl. Vinyl has made a pretty big comeback in the last few years, but it's among a certain crowd. The top sellers in the category give a little insight to which crowd. With top sellers like Jack White and the Arctic Monkeys, it can be seen that these are people who are not necessarily with the super mainstream. Also included artists are the Beatles and Bob Marley. These artists could be in the top sellers because of older generations or young adults who may be into "vintage" culture. To recap and summarize: CDs seem to mostly be adults buying for children or adults buying for themselves(hence Barbra Streisand taking the number 4 spot) Digital seems to be mostly consumed by teens and younger adults, and vinyl has a good mix between adults and young adults.

To wrap it up, let's took a look at where people are buying physical albums. The chart below shows the total units sold at different store types. These totals from last year and up to the middle of this year. It's no surprise that the mass merchants lead in this category although the total is looking to be a bit less this year. Non-traditional merchants seem to be on the rise this year. Non-traditional merchants include online stores, concert venues, etc.


So, who wins?

Despite the return of vinyl and CDs still doing pretty well in sales, it seems people still chose digital over all. I sent a quick music format survey out on Twitter and Facebook to see some what people preferred. I got about 20 responses and the chart below shows the results. Digital was clearly the winner. I included a "why" section and most of the reasons were similar. Convenience was the most reoccurring. An interesting reason for choosing physical over digital was quality. Most of the time digital music does not have the same quality as music on a CD or vinyl.

It looks like digital wins this one, but this could change at any time. These results are very interesting and they vary so much. It would be interesting to keep an eye on these things throughout the years to see how they fluctuate or plateau. Analysing the reasons why is where the stories emerge.


About project and creator.

Stephen Torres

I am a senior at Texas State University and I made this site as part of my final project for my data and coding class. I collected all the data from various sources and I coded the charts and most of the content myself. I chose the topic of music formats because the trend seems to fluctuate more than most people think. This trend could be studied and reported on constantly and I think it would lead to different results every time.