Ed Sheeran's album "÷" was the most-consumed album of 2017 in the U.S., logging total equivalent sales of 2.76 million copies, a figure that melds sales and streaming data, according to final year-end music consumption data compiled by Nielsen Music.
It was one of just two albums, along with Taylor Swift's "Reputation," to sell more than 1 million physical units at a time when most consumers are streaming their favorite songs and albums rather than purchasing digital downloads or physical CDs or other formats.
Indeed, on-demand audio streaming accounted for 54% of total audio consumption, which combines album and track sales with on-demand streaming equivalents. That's up from 38% last year and 22% in 2015, constituting the majority of audio consumption for the first time.
That growth was fueled by increased appetite for R&B and hip-hop music, which also scored a first by outpacing rock as the dominant music genre in the U.S. for the first time in terms of total volume for albums, a number that includes album sales, track-equivalent sales and on-demand audio and video streaming equivalent albums.
"The music industry saw solid growth this past year, largely supported by the increased accessibility of music and a diversity of channels for music discovery," Nielsen Music general manager Erin Crawford said in a statement.
"Consumers are continuing to engage with music at unprecedented levels and streaming services are proving to be a key catalyst in increased consumer demand," Crawford said. "The music industry has never been more dynamic."
Nielsen officials note that eight of the 10 highest volume artists were R&B/hip-hop acts, with only Sheeran and Swift bringing pop into the top 10. Drake was No. 1 with 4.8 million total volume followed by Kendrick Lamar (3.7 million), Sheeran (3.6 million) and Swift (3.4 million).
Sheeran's blockbuster hit single "Shape of You" spent 12 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart and 33 consecutive weeks in the Top 10, the longest run for a single in the history of the chart. Lamar's "Damn" was the top R&B/hip-hop album of 2017 in terms of total volume.
Nielsen put a positive spin on the year-end data, noting that total volume increased 12.5% over 2016, led by a 59% increase in on-demand audio streams compared to a year earlier.
Nielsen competitor BuzzAngle also noted, significantly, that music enthusiasts not only listened more during 2017 than a year earlier — and predominantly through streaming — and they did so to a greater extent than ever through paid subscription streaming services.
BuzzAngle reported that streaming through paid services such as Spotify, Napster and others accounted for 80% of all streaming, up from 76% a year ago.
Additionally: "There were more than twice as many streams on any given day during 2017," BuzzAngle noted, "than there were song downloads for the entire year." The daily average of music streams was 1.67 billion, while song downloads for the year tallied 563.7 million.
Both Nielsen and BuzzAngle flagged the continued resurgence in vinyl records, one of the few bright spots in the generally dour story of continued downturn for physical formats.
Vinyl LP sales increased for the 12th consecutive year, up 9% in 2017 over 2016, and hitting a total of 14.3 million units, the highest figure for vinyl since Nielsen began tracking actual sales in 1991. Otherwise, continued drops in digital sales paved the way for a 19% decrease in sales of albums and track-equivalent albums versus 2016.
BuzzAngle, however, also noticed another resurgence in the making: cassette tapes. The format accounted for a relatively small number of physical sales during the year, with just 99,400 cassettes sold in the U.S. But that constitutes a 136% increase over the 42,100 cassettes that sold in 2016.
The format has been a central element of the two recent blockbuster Marvel Studios' "Guardians of the Galaxy" films, and the hit soundtracks have been issued as cassettes as well as on CD and digital. Not surprisingly, the top selling cassette of the year was "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Awesome Mix Vol. 2."
The two top-selling vinyl LPs of the year were both from the Beatles: "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," which came out in a deluxe 50th anniversary edition featuring a new stereo remix, and the group's 1969 album "Abbey Road," which has consistently been among top-selling vinyl LPs over the decades.
Yet another indicator of the growth in on-demand streaming was the number of songs surpassing the 500 million mark. Last year 19 songs did so, compared to just six that made it in 2016. Nielsen officials also pointed out that of those 19 tracks, 17 were R&B/hip-hop songs.
"Despacito" by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber topped the ranking of individual tracks, scoring more than 1.3 billion on-demand audio and video streams for the year.