Chart Watch Extra: iTunes Turns 10

Paul Grein
Chart Watch (NEW)

The iTunes Store, which opened for business 10 years ago on Sunday (April 28), has had a revolutionary impact on the music industry. It gave fans the opportunity to buy the one song from an album they most wanted, a simple but vital thing that fans hadn’t been able to do since the era of physical singles came to a virtual halt in 2000.

“Apple made music ubiquitous in a way it never was before,” Jeff Price, founder of TuneCore and co-founder of spinART Records, told Billboard. “…That ubiquitous-ness has driven a consumption of music that is unparalleled in the history of the world.”

That’s not just music business hyperbole. iTunes’ growth has been phenomenal. The service sold its 25 billionth song on Feb. 6, just seven years after it sold its billionth song (Feb. 23, 2006).

iTunes has been the leading music vendor in the U.S. since April 2008, when it surpassed Wal-Mart. It has been the leading music vendor in the world since February 2010. Last October, it was reported that iTunes represents 64% of the online music market.

A whopping 186 songs have sold 3 million or more digital copies (through all services, not just iTunes). 40 have sold 5 million. Four have sold 7 million.

“Thrift Shop” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Wanz has already sold 5,820,000 copies, which makes it the 22nd best-selling digital hit of all time. It has sold 4,703,000 of those copies since the beginning of the year. At this rate, 2013 may wind up being the third year in a row in which the year’s best-selling song has established a new record for calendar year digital sales. Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” set a record when it sold 5,813,000 copies in 2011. “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye featuring Kimbra broke that record when it sold 6,801,000 copies in 2012.

These are staggering numbers. But it didn’t happen overnight.

Two months after the opening of the iTunes Store, Nielsen SoundScan introduced a new chart—Top Digital Tracks. “Crazy In Love” by Beyonce featuring Jay-Z was #1 on the first survey (for the week ending June 29, 2003). Its sales tally for the week: just 1,500 copies. As you can see, it took a while for digital to catch on.

“Laffy Taffy” by one-hit-wonders D4L (Down For Life) was the first song to top 100K in weekly sales (Jan. 1, 2006). “Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira featuring Wyclef Jean was the first to top 250K in weekly sales (June 4, 2006). Flo Rida’s “Right Round” was the first to top 500K in weekly sales (Feb. 15, 2009). “Right Round” sold 636K copies in its first week, which remains the one-week digital sales record.

The iTunes store was the brainchild of Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple Inc. “Steve created something that made it so easy for people to buy music,” Doug Morris, CEO of Sony Music Entertainment, told Billboard. “He had a complete thought that went from iTunes to the iPod. It made complete sense, and it was something he felt people would be willing to pay for. In the end, he was right. It was all about having the right product.”

“Steve made digital music fashionable,” Paul Vidich, former head of digital at Warner Music Group, added. “The iPod white silhouette campaign was a perfect representation of that. He turned music into a fashion statement, a wearable fashion statement. He made it sexy.”

Physical singles held their own through the 1990s. At least one song sold 2,500,000 copies during the year in six of the seven calendar years between 1992 and 1998. But then sales took a nosedive. The best-selling single of 2001, Mariah Carey’s “Loverboy” (from the soundtrack to her flop movie Glitter) sold a less than “glittery” 571K copies during the year. (Note that that’s less than “Right Round” sold in just one week.)

The Black Eyed Peas’ “Let's Get It Started” was the first song to reach the 500,000 mark in cumulative digital sales. It hit that mark on Feb. 20, 2005.

About eight months later (on Oct. 9, 2005), Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” became the first song to top 1 million in digital sales. Sales have been climbing ever since.

On Dec. 31, 2006, “Bad Day” by one-hit-wonder Daniel Powter became the first song to top 2 million in digital sales.

On Jan 6, 2008, “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” by 17-year old rapper Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em became the first song to reach 3 million.

Another hip-hop smash, “Low” by Flo Rida featuring T-Pain, became the first song to reach both 4 million (June 29, 2008) and 5 million (June 21, 2009).

The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” became the first song to reach 6 million (July 25, 2010), 7 million (March 20, 2011) and 8 million (June 24, 2012).

“I Gotta Feeling” is the best-selling song in digital history, with sales of 8,286,000. Here’s the rest of the top five: Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” (7,838,000), “Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO featuring Lauren Bennett and GoonRock (7,638,000), “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye featuring Kimbra (7,267,000) and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” (6,978,000).

Two artists have two of the top 10 digital sellers of all time. Lady Gaga has #6 (“Poker Face”) and #7 (“Just Dance,” featuring Colby O’Donis). The Black Eyed Peas have #1 and #9 (“Boom Boom Pow”).

Albums haven’t sold as well as songs in the digital sphere. Adele’s 21 is the best-selling album in digital history. It has sold 2,926,000 digital copies (out of 10,559,000 total). (By way of comparison, 196 songs have sold that many digital copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.)

Six albums have sold 1 million digital copies. 45 albums have sold 500K digital copies.

Mumford & Sons have two of the five best-selling albums in digital history. Sigh No More is #2 (1,589,000), and the band’s follow-up, Babel, is #4 (1,184,000). Eminem’s Recovery is #3 (1,232,000). Lady Gaga’s The Fame is #5 (1,063,000).

Coldplay’s X&Y was the first album to sell 50K digital copies in one week (June 12, 2005). Maroon 5’s It Won’t Be Soon Before Long was the first to sell 100K copies in a week (May 27, 2007). Coldplay’s follow-up album, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, was the first to sell 250K copies in a week (June 22, 2008). Lady Gaga’s Born This Way was the first to sell 500K in a week (May 29, 2011). Born This Way sold 662K copies in its first week, which remains the one-week digital sales record.

U2’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was the first album to top the 50K mark in cumulative sales (Dec. 26, 2004). X&Y was the first to reach 100K (July 3, 2005). John Mayer’s Continuum was the first to sell 250K (April 22, 2007). Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends was the first to sell 500K (Aug. 17, 2008). Recovery was the first to sell 1 million (July 3, 2011). 21 was the first to sell 2 million (Feb. 12, 2012).

Current music has dominated in the digital sphere, but some music that was released prior to the opening of the iTunes store has sold very well digitally. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which was first released in 1981, has sold 5,667,000 digital copies. That’s more than any other song that pre-dates the digital era.

Journey also has the best-selling digital album that was released prior to the opening of the iTunes Store. Greatest Hits, released in 1988, has sold 711K digital copies.