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For the first time in history, digital music sales were higher than traditional physical sales in the U.S., according a Nielsen and Billboard report released today.

It may seems odd that it would take this long for digital music to take the leadership spot, since digital music has been on the rise among consumers for the better part of a decade. However, it’s taken the major music labels about as much time to make sense of the digital music business model rather than cling to CDs. And even now, digital sales are just barely ahead.

According to the report, digital purchases made up 50.3 percent of all music sales in 2011 — up 8.4 percent compared to last year. Meanwhile, physical sales music albums totaled 228 million in 2011, a decline of five percent compared to 2010. As for music artists, Adele’s 21 was the highest selling album in both digital and physical sales, while her single “Rolling in the Deep” took the top spot for bestselling digital song with 5.8 million purchases.

When it comes to streaming, Lady Gaga is the undisputed champion. The report names her 2011’s most streamed artist. Yet, Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” was the most streamed song of the year, with 84.9 million audio plays and over 71 million video streams.

Some other figures from the report worth noting (especially the last bullet point):

  • Digital album sales exceeded 100 million for the first time with a new all-time high of 103.1 million sales (up from 86.3 million in 2010); an increase of nearly 20%.
  • Digital album sales accounted for nearly 1 out of every 3 album purchases (31%) in 2011; compared to 26% in 2010, 20% in 2009, 15% in 2008, 10% in 2007 and 5.5% in 2006.
  • Nearly all digital album genres had a positive year in 2011; (soundtracks were down 2% compared to 2010.)
  • Digital track sales for Pop, Rock, R&B/Hip Hop and Country genres all had double digital growth in 2011 (24%, 23%, 20% and 11% respectively).
  • For the first time, more than 100 digital songs (112 total) exceeded the 1 million sales mark for the year.
  • In 2011, eight different artists broke the 10 million digital track sales mark.
  • For the fourth consecutive year, more vinyl albums were purchased than any other year in the history of the report — with 3.9 million albums sold (an increase of 1.1 million albums compared to 2010).

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