Slipped disc: The decline of CD sales and the Christmas No.1 album

Slipped disc: The decline of CD sales and the Christmas No.1 album

Taylor Swift’s Midnights is this year’s Christmas No.1 album, following a chart contest with Cliff Richard and Michael Buble. 

At one point, it looked as if Midnights’ streaming total in the past week might be higher than its physical performance, something that has never happened for a Christmas No.1 album. In the event, physical made up 53.9% of Midnight’s weekly total, which is still by far the lowest ever share for a Christmas No.1.

Wth CD sales diving in 2022, based on Music Week research, the longstanding tradition of physical music in the festive period is now looking uncertain.

The Christmas No.1 single is still a mainstream media story even with the dominance of LadBaby in recent years. But the chart-topping album has become less of an event in the streaming era.

In years gone by, securing the top spot in the albums chart with big numbers in the week of Christmas was a sign of a surefire hit, either from a chart mainstay of that year or a strategic Q4 release in the run-up to Christmas. 

Last year, despite becoming her first LP available on DSPs from release, Adele’s 30 still registered 62,083 physical sales in chart week 51 (out of a total of 70,813 - Official Charts Company) to retain the No.1 position for Christmas. During the final week of 2021’s gifting season, its physical sales increased from the prior week.

The final weeks of Q4 have traditionally been a time when physical music could make its mark on the albums chart, even amid the ongoing switch to DSP consumption. But 2022 shows signs of being the year that streaming - already dominant in terms of consumption throughout the year - finally ends that end-of-year boost for physical.

With no album managing to top 20,000 chart sales in the past week, Taylor Swift was able to cruise back to the summit for a third non-consecutive week at No.1 with Midnights. The album became this year’s Christmas chart-topper by registering a further 17,109 sales, including 9,216 physical copies, 7,690 from streams and 203 downloads. Its total stands at 404,600 after just two months.

While that caps off a triumphant year for Taylor Swift, it does raise questions about the physical music market at Christmas and the long-term future of CD amid an accelerating decline for the format. Only one album (Cliff Richard’s Christmas With Cliff at No.2 - 15,837 sales) sold in excess of 10,000 physical copies in the past week.

According to Official Charts Company data for the year up to week 50 (ending December 15), CD sales were down 18.9% year-on-year. That compares to a year-on-year decline of 10.5% (to 14 million) for the format during the whole of 2021.

Physical represented 29% of the albums market in the past week compared to 28.2% in the prior week. A year ago, physical was at 37.2% of the albums market in the week leading up to Christmas.

Back in 2016, almost 50 million CDs were sold, and Christmas was the period when sales peaked. Michael Buble’s Christmas reached No.1 with 317,114 copies sold in seven days in the run-up to December 25 in 2011. In 2015, Adele’s 25 (then not available to stream) sold a staggering 449,970 copies in a week.

Of course, the market has since shifted to a consumption model, but weekly sales in the run-up to Christmas were still topping 100,000 as recently as 2017 (Eminem’s Revival at No.1 and Ed Sheeran’s Divide at No.2 both made six figures). In the last five years, physical has been on the wane but the Christmas No.1 album was still above 50,000 physical copies for that key week in 2018 (The Greatest Showman), 2019 (Rod Stewart’s You’re In My Heart) and 2021 (Adele).

There was a credible challenge this year from three festive releases, new and old, by Cliff Richard, Michael Buble and Andrea, Matteo & Virginia Bocelli. But without the usual retail boost, the two 2022 releases - Christmas With Cliff and the Bocellis’ A Family Christmas - were unable to make up the ground. 

As the week progressed, Swift’s main threat appeared to be from Buble’s 11-year-old Christmas album, which was powered by streams (84.3%) and ultimately made No.3. SZA’s SOS, which finished at No.4, does not even have a physical edition. 

While fewer big albums dropping late in the year could explain the slower market performance in the past week, the difference was not just at the top of the chart. In Christmas week 2021 and 2020, four of the Top 5 albums topped 10,000 physical sales, while in 2019 each of the Top 5 albums surpassed 20,000 weekly physical sales.

It’s also notable that big festive releases of recent years, such as LPs from Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow, have not returned to the chart in 2022. The chart-topping Together At Christmas from 2020 by Michael Ball & Alfie Boe did manage to stage a revival this year, but only as high as No.51. The duo are in the Christmas week Top 20 with new release Together In Vegas.

Part of the problem is the lack of availability of CD, a remarkably good value gifting option at this time of year. But record stores now give over much more floor space to vinyl, while many supermarkets have stopped selling music completely or limited it to select titles.

Warner Music ingeniously got around this problem by packaging Cliff Richard’s Christmas With Cliff in a magazine format that could be stocked in supermarkets.

Vinyl has made a big impact in Q4 with key releases from Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and Arctic Monkeys. But with prices increasing - £30 is common for an LP - the format is not likely to be an impulse buy for the Christmas shopper looking for the right gift.

There is a risk that if vinyl costs rise too much it may inevitably affect demand

Kim Bailey

In the latest issue of Music Week, ERA’s Kim Bayley noted the rise in prices for vinyl.

“Great products which deliver high perceived value will always sell,” she said. “During the Christmas gifting season, we can expect more demand. But value and price need to be aligned.

“We recognise that costs are rising for all parts of the industry, but there is a risk that if vinyl costs rise too much it may inevitably affect demand, in particular from younger, less affluent audiences.”

In the latest issue, we crunch the Q4 numbers for the first eight weeks of the quarter that shows vinyl unit sales up by 7.4% year-on-year. But, as this Christmas week has shown, it’s been a bumpy quarter and vinyl is not set to grow at the same rate as last year, when sales soared by 10.6% for the 12 months. 

In terms of value, however, there has been a significant increase, which is good news for retailers and labels. According to Official Charts Company data up to week 50 in 2022, vinyl retail value is up 10.5% year-on-year.

As well as consumers’ ability to absorb rising prices, there have been concerns about production capacity and supply issues. But if that has held back growth of vinyl at retail, there are hopes the situation could be improving.

“The production of vinyl remains an issue, but there has been a massive improvement on the situation in the last 12 months,” HMV and Fopp MD Phil Halliday told Music Week. “There’s certainly an opportunity for growth in 2023, most notably on catalogue, where some segments have been significantly impacted over the last 18 months.” 

Subscribers can read the full story on vinyl and Q4 here.

Christmas No.1 album weekly sales


Taylor Swift - Midnights (17,109  - 9,216 physical copies)


Adele - 30 (70,813 - 62,083 physical copies)


Paul McCartney - McCartney III (33,079 - 30,557 physical copies)


Rod Stewart - You’re In My Heart (71,330 - 68,015 physical copies)


The Greatest showman (68,606 - 55,025 physical copies)


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