In The Graduate, a brain-dead fat cat famously advised Dustin Hoffman's character to devote his professional career to "Plastics!" These days, however, up-and-comers would be well advised to stay away from this field -- at least if they'd hoped to specialize in compact discs. Recently released 2006 sales figures from Nielsen SoundScan, an industry monitor that "tracks point-of-purchase sales of recorded music product," firmly establish the rise of virtual items and the inexorable decline of their literal counterparts.

Examples? Total album sales in 2006 wound up at just over 588 million units, versus almost 619 million in the not exactly stellar year of 2005 -- a decrease of nearly 5 percent. During the same period, however, digital album sales more than doubled, from 16.2 million to 32.6 million. The numbers are even more dramatic when it comes to digital tracks. In 2005, over 352 million tracks were sold in this manner. But in 2006, consumers purchased 65 percent more: an impressive 581,900,000. At this rate, the digital track total will surpass overall album sales (which includes CDs, LPs and digital albums) by the close of 2007.

That's a massive shift, and it'll likely spell doom for even more retail establishments in the coming year.

The Nielsen data also establishes what a spectacular year it was for the Fray. The top ten digital tracks roster includes two songs by the Denver-based band: "Over My Head," whose 1,518,450 units landed the group at number three, and "How to Save a Life," which racked up 1,365,033 units -- good for number seven. These amounts add up to around a million more units than the 1,935,974 copies shifted by the top seller, Daniel Powter's dreadful "Bad Day." The Fray was also the third largest digital seller, behind Rascal Flatts and Nickelback; had the sixth and seventh ranked ditties on the top digital songs roster; and topped the digital album list, albeit with a rather modest 198,371 units of the How to Save a Life full-length.

This last figure demonstrates that members of the digital generation are much more interested in individual tunes than collections by a single artist -- a predilection that casts a pall over the traditional album. And while the Fray sold more CDs than digital albums, the overall numbers pertaining to these formats are moving in opposite directions, and should pass each other within a few short years. So sell that plastic-company stock now, while you still can. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts