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From Mozart To Adele To Chance The Rapper, Measuring Album Sales Means Being Specific

Chance the Rapper performs in L.A. in November 2016. His mixtape <em>Coloring Book </em>can't be bought — but by<strong> </strong><em>Billboard</em>'s rules, it was streamed enough times last year to equal 500,000 album "sales."
Kevin Winter
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Chance the Rapper performs in L.A. in November 2016. His mixtape Coloring Book can't be bought — but by Billboard's rules, it was streamed enough times last year to equal 500,000 album "sales."

Recently, NPR brought you the story of one of 2016's most successful musicians: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Last year, the Universal Music Group released a 200-CD box set of the composer's works. Multiply that by the 6,000-odd sets sold worldwide as of early December, and you had 1.25 million CDs. And that, we said, had given Mozart a hit release.

Well, David Bakula says that's not quite right — and he should know. He's a senior vice president at the Nielsen Company, which collects the data that Billboard uses to make its charts.

"I'm afraid Mozart didn't quite make it this year," Bakula says, explaining that physical CDs and even digital downloads only are only a part of what determines an album's chart success these days. In fact, thanks to the rise of streaming services, some artists can make waves on the charts without "selling" anything at all.

NPR's Audie Cornish spoke with Bakula about how streaming has changed both the music industry and the language we use to understand it. Hear the full conversation at the audio link and read an edited version bellow.

Audie Cornish: OK, so we and many other people were super wrong about this. What was the real best-selling album of 2016?

David Bakula: There was a little bit of confusion there: Certainly we don't multiply the number of discs by the sale. When you do look at the total consumption for the year in terms of albums, you had Drake's Views record being the top record of the year.

In terms of sales, it was bested by Adele's 25 record, which actually came out at the end of 2015 but continued to sell very well throughout the year. But when we talk about total consumption — the album, all of the songs that were purchased individually, all of the streams that happened — Drake was the biggest of the year.

Help us understand that. Does the word "sales" mean anything anymore? Or do you have to explain that you mean something more specific — physical CDs, digital sales.

It means less and less, I think, every year. We are finding that audio on-demand streaming is becoming a very big piece of the industry. If you look at the revenue that's coming in, the album is still the main driver of revenue on a per-transaction basis. But we had over 250 billion audio streams last year, and even if you do multiply by a very small per-play rate, you still get a massive amount of money, to the point where on-demand streaming is actually making up 38 percent of the total consumption.

But in the meantime, you have traditional album sales down 16 percent, and digital single sales down 25 percent. So we're just not buying music anymore — buying it to hold on to, anyway.

Certainly: The technologically advanced consumer is realizing the value that is in streaming and is shifting over from sales to just access. Physical has some things holding it up — [you might] have a consumer that maybe hasn't switched over to digital yet, but you also have a consumer that is in love with vinyl. That consumer is getting to be a significant piece of the physical business. This year, it was about 11 percent of the total physical business, so that LP buyer is still a very loyal buyer to physical products.

So your DJs, superfans, completists — they will still go get the vinyl.

Audiophiles — yeah, they love vinyl.

You mentioned Adele and Drake had both had a good year. Chance the Rapper's mixtape Coloring Book did pretty well, too — almost exclusively on streaming.

Yes, it was exclusively on streaming, and that's one of the really interesting things. The Grammy board is recognizing Chance for what he has done this year as well. Streaming is the only component to the charts that Chance the Rapper had this year, and he stayed on the Top 200 chart for 33 straight weeks and counting — he's still on the charts. He's had so much streaming this year that it's the same equivalency as selling over 500,000 albums.

So at the end of the day, where does that leave our friend Mozart?

He's not gonna be anywhere near the top of the charts. Again, because we don't count it by disc, he's going to show up with about 250 sales [in the U.S.] this year.

I think he's done all right.

Mozart's estate is doing just fine, sure.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.