Music sales rise after years in the doldrums

Adele performs onstage at The Brit Awards 2011 held at The O2 Arena on Feb. 15, 2011 in London, England.

Kai Ryssdal: Things are looking a little bit brighter for the music industry. For the first time in six years, sales are up. More than 1.5 percent better this year than last, that's according to Nielsen, the ratings people.

There are all kinds of reasons for the bump, including, as Marketplace's Alisa Roth explains, maybe the best one: music that people think is worth paying for.

Alisa Roth: The upshot of the Nielsen report is that we're buying fewer CDs, but we are still buying music. Russ Crupnick is an entertainment analyst for the NPD Group, which is a market research firm.

Russ Crupnick: We're seeing really good growth in terms of the number of people who are coming in and buying digital downloads. And we're seeing really good growth in the number of people who are buying digital albums, so that's positive.

Crupnick says -- as with so many new technologies -- the challenge is how to make money from it. Although music sales have risen in terms of units sold, in terms of dollars, the business still isn't doing so well.

That may get better. Nielsen says people are paying more for music: many single downloads now go for a $1.29, rather than the 99 cents they cost originally.

Dan Keen is a professor at Belmont University. He says one thing that's really helping is good new music. The British singer Adele's CD "21" recently became the most downloaded album ever on Amazon.

Dan Keen: It's not just about a groove, although that's part of it, or about a great production. But it's the pathos and the ethos in her voice that really connects with people.

Whether it's Adele, the Beatles -- who are now available on iTunes -- or Lady Gaga, people are getting more and more tunes online. And -- music to the ears of the industry -- less and less from illegal fileshares.

In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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I was at one of the most technical colleges in the country when the mp3 free-pirate-download craze began. It exploded across the Internet spectrum in the late 90's, but the RIAA didn't want to change; they had a comfy CD-selling cash cow and at the time would rather litigate than convert.

Fast-forward to today, and now that digital music is everywhere, and songs are a buck each, I have no problem buying songs on amazon or iTunes or the half-dozen other major outlets. Sure, I can still find places online to find pirated versions, but I'd rather buy than steal.

I love music. I think the secret to selling music has really never changed. Find an interesting voice, pair it with a good melody and lyrics, and let it rip. Unfortunately, music companies have tried for years to find a guaranteed formula, and so far it hasn’t worked. That is why music sales have flagged. Now, because they have found a few artists that excite people, and buyers are buying MP3s, they think they have found the secret. It’s MP3s! Not really. It's the voice - not the format.

I would be willing to buy MP3s if they just sounded good. The fact is, they sound terrible. I think storing my music in the cloud – and I have hundreds of cds – would be wonderful, but I still demand good sound quality. Maybe this concept doesn’t resonate with the 13-23 year old demographic. But what is the point of listening to beautiful music if it isn’t beautiful sounding?

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