Summary:

UK music sales reached the milestone of digital music revenues exceeding physical for the first time – but it’s mostly the effect of Christmas iPod sales.

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Today UK music industry trade body the BPI announced the milestone of digital music revenues exceeding physical music revenues for the first time. At first glance the numbers are impressive but there is important context.  Although it might appear that the UK is closing the gap on US digital music ‘channel shift’ there still remains clear blue water.

Digital revenues surpassed 50% of total recorded music sales in the US last year, but almost reached that point in 2010, level pegging physical sales on 49% at year end (performing rights made up the rest according the IFPI).  By comparison full year digital revenues in the UK in 2011 made up 35.4% of total trade revenues according to the BPI’s (invaluable) 2012 Yearbook.

The BPI’s announcement today refers to 1st quarter data alone.  In Q1 2012 digital accounted for 55% of income at £86.5 million, up from £70 million in Q1 2011 when it accounted for 46.1% of income.  The eagle eyed of you will have noticed that even in 2011 digital’s Q1 share was markedly above the annual total of 35.4%.  Underlying this disparity is the emergence of a new wave of seasonal purchase behaviour, what I call the Post-Holiday Surge.

Christmas / holiday period sales have always been by far the most important for record labels (highlighting why it is so important that someone somewhere gets digital gifting fixed – and iTunes vouchers are not the answer).  The advent of digital has created a second wave of festive spending: after the Christmas / holiday period we now see a surge in digital sales as people fill up their brand new MP3 players, tablets and smartphones with new music.  Although because Apple accounts for c.75% of digital download sales it is probably more accurate to restate that as ‘we now see a surge in digital sales as Apple customers fill up their brand new iPods, iPads and iPhones with new music from the iTunes Music Store’. (Other digital channels such as Spotify of course play a major role in digital revenue, but less so in the post-holiday boom).

This is why Q1 increasingly over reports for digital sales.  That is not to take anything away from the numbers reported by the BPI (it is a key milestone worthy of celebration) but it shouldn’t distract us from the fact that the UK remains somewhere between 1.5 and 2 years behind the US in terms of the shift to digital.  If trends continue at their current rate the end of year digital revenue share in the UK should hit somewhere in the region of 46% to 48% i.e. pretty much where the US was in 2010.

Digital sales are growing, but still not quickly enough across the entire year.  Full year 2011 UK trade data shows that physical income declined by £84.2 million while digital grew by £55.8 million (a net loss of £28.4 million).  In Q1 2012 a very different picture appears: year-on-year digital increased by £16.5 million while physical declined by £12.3 million, a net gain of £4.2 million.

The Post-Holiday Surge phenomenon illustrates where digital needs to be performing at now and for the whole year, namely growing more quickly than CD sales contract across 12 months of sales. In the UK, Q1 is digital’s quarter, now it needs to take ownership of the entire year just like it did in the US.

» For 11 years, Mark Mulligan was a vice president and research director at Jupiter Research (later acquired by Forrester Research). He now blogs at The Music Industry Blog, where this piece was originally published. Mark also contributes to GigaOM Pro.

This article originally appeared in Music Industry Blog.

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