Album sales dip to lowest in decades

Sold 4.9 million total CDs for week ending May 30

Album sales have hit pop bottom.

A not-so-grand total of 4.9 million units moved in the U.S. during the week ending May 30, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- the fewest since the service began tracking that stat in January 1994.

And although there is no apples-to-apples way of being certain, Billboard used RIAA data to estimate that the figure might be the lowest since the Nixon administration. But album-sales tracking before the SoundScan era was entirely unscientific, so it's impossible to determine whether weekly sales have hit a historic low.

As former Warner Bros. Records exec Lou Dennis put it, "Who the hell knows what weekly sales were back then?"

Regardless, the sub-5 million-unit week is startlingly low, even considering the record biz's decade-long fade. Album sales for the comparable week last year were 5.7 million, signaling a 13% dropoff. The highest one-week tally of the 19-year SoundScan era is 45.4 million albums during Christmastime in 2000, meaning the last week of May was off a defibrillating 89% from the peak.

Not all the news was dire, however: Digital track sales, which aren't included in the album tally, totaled 21.7 million for the frame.

The weakest week for album sales didn't exactly stun industry watchers as the ongoing rotten economy and still-rampant piracy combined with a particularly sparse release schedule. The top-selling new disc was the self-titled set by Stone Temple Pilots -- a band more than 15 years removed from its commercial peak.

But the bleeding should coagulate a bit in the near term.

When the latest sales numbers arrive Wednesday, mellow rocker Jack Johnson's "To the Sea" is expected to have scanned about 250,000 in its first frame. And the June slate is dotted with potential big sellers from the likes of Eminem, Miley Cyrus, Lil Jon, Christina Aguilera, Sarah McLachlan and Ozzy Osbourne.

Still, the May 30 week is indicative of the industry's continuing downtrend.

The top-selling album, "Glee: The Music, Volume 3 -- Showstoppers," sold only 63,000 units. Five years ago this week, 63,000 units would have translated to a No. 14 ranking. This week in 2006, it would have placed at No. 11; in 2007, No. 7; in 2008, No. 4; and last year, No. 3.

A little perspective on how much difference a decade makes: The last week of May 2000 saw Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP" move 1.7 million copies in its debut frame -- the third-highest total in SoundScan history -- and Britney Spears was No. 2 as "Oops! ... I Did It Again" shifted 612,000. In fact, every album in the top 10 sold more than 100,000.

And how does 2010 overall compare with last year? Album sales were 125.4 million through the first five months, down 11% from 140.2 million in 2009, according to SoundScan.

Billboard writers Ed Christman in New York and Keith Caulfield in Los Angeles contributed to this report.