Nielsen SoundScan has published US music sales figures for 2012, and as ever there is debate around what they indicate about the impact of streaming services on traditional sales.

The bad news: overall album sales fell 4% from 331m units in 2011 to 316m units in 2012, for the usual reasons of digital growth not outstripping physical decline. CD sales dropped by 13% while digital album sales rose 14%, taking them to 37% of overall album sales.

The 4% drop in overall album sales might be worrying, given the industry celebrations in January last year about a 1% rise in 2011. Then again, a 4% fall is still better than the annual declines seen in the years before 2011.

A 5.1% rise in single-track digital sales to 1.34bn units can also be seen as a bright spot for the US in 2012, especially when considering the downloads/streaming cannibalisation debate. It’s worth considering, too. The Nielsen SoundScan figures focus on unit sales, not a.) revenues or b.) streams.

That information will come in time, but an RIAA blog post published at the end of 2012 provided some early data points, noting that streaming, personal radio and music video services generated $800m of royalties for the US music industry in 2011 – 12% of its total – with that contribution “likely to continue rising as those services continued growing in users and listener hours in 2012”.

The industry is used to looking at the year-end unit-sales figures and using them as THE measure of how music is doing. But for once the RIAA hits the nail on the head in how things need to change: “The diversification of music business revenues is an important element of any informed, comprehensive analysis of the state of the music business.”

Which does pose questions about how streaming services and rightsholders can work together to publish figures more quickly to match traditional sales data.

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