prism_katy_perry_360Is the album dead, wonders an article in the Guardian about the latest music sales figures from the US. “It seems that the 10-song, artist-statement format that originated with the advent of the 33⅓ long player in the late 1940s could itself be nearing the end of the line,” suggests the piece.

Why? It notes that last week’s total album sales were 4.49m units in the US, with even the number one album – Katy Perry’s ‘Prism’ – selling less than 300,000 copies.

Stop us if you saw this coming: if the album is dying, the finger is being pointed at Spotify and YouTube as the red-handed killers. ”Analysts blame Spotify, YouTube and other cheap or free streaming services for broad declines that include a 4% drop in digital downloads” – although a decline in shelf-space for CDs is also mentioned.

The article quotes the RIAA’s Jonatham Lamy talking in support of streaming – ”a variety of access models are collectively generating a healthy amount of revenue for labels and artists” – while noting Bilboard’s Ed Christman’s views on whether streaming can ever be as profitable as album sales: “You just don’t know. It’s like asking how big the universe is. Right now it’s a small universe.”

You just don’t know: four words that neatly summarise this whole debate. People know the number of albums being sold, but for now the figures on how much money streaming services – where people are listening to full albums as well as single tracks in playlists – aren’t available.

We know digital downloads are down, but we don’t know how much streaming revenues are up. It’s an industry debate being conducted without half the facts required to understand what’s really going on, and whether it’s cause for concern or celebration.

In Norway, music downloads fell by 21% in the first half of 2013, but overall recorded music revenues rose by 17% fuelled by streaming’s growth. In Sweden, downloads were down 20% in the same period, but overall sales rose by 12%: again, streaming was the key.

Those countries are two of the earliest adopters of streaming, and the US is not in the same position – yet. But their latest figures do show that if falling sales are accompanied by strong streaming growth, the overall picture can be positive.

The question in the US should not be ‘is the album dead?’, but rather ‘are streaming revenues putting the US on a similar path to Sweden and Norway?’ – if so, by how much, and if not, why not?