US CD sales in 2005 fell 3.5 per cent year-over-year, according to Nielsen Soundscan. That's quite a blow given that CD sales actually rose by 2.3 per cent in 2004. A sane person might suggest that higher energy costs throughout 2005 ate up a few of those sales or that pricey iPods left less cash to spend on albums. This logic escapes the Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA), which again attributes the fall in sales to piracy and which last year attributed the rise in sales to better anti-piracy measures.
The situation is even more dire for blockbuster releases. Chris Anderson, of "Long Tail" fame, presents some data that shows how few all-time topsellers there have been since the millenium (and none at all in 2004 or 2005).
I wonder a bit about the conclusions, some of which are also raised in the comments to the post. For example, I wonder whether it's partly a case of newer albums not having had time to become bestsellers yet. Chris Anderson's take on this (from the comments) is: "Typically albums do most of their total volume of sales in their first year. Looking back at the past years' releases it's a safe bet that there are no slow-burners there who are going to creep in to the Top 100 over time." Which seems reasonable enough. Perhaps there are cyclical trends at work here too, as there have been historically.
However, it's hard to dispute that we live in a world in which the mainstream (often manufactured) pop star may not be dead but where he/she/it competes with accelerated Internet time, (especially) solitary hits being sold on the iTunes Music Store, and a generally much more fragmented and information-rich market. It's much analogous to TV. As the network news shows change their guard, they'll never be the focal point they once were and, as Derek comments, "there will probably never be another TV show with the kind of ratings that "All in the Family" had in the 70's, because there are more channels now. Instead of one show with a 34-rating, there are 50 shows with a 1-rating."