NEW YORK — As sales of CDs plunged over the last decade, the music industry clung to one comfort: Downloads continued to sell briskly as people filled their computers and iPods with songs by the billions.
Now even that certainty seems to have disappeared as downloads head toward their first yearly loss.
So far this year, 1.01 billion track downloads have been sold in the United States, down 4 percent from the same time last year, according to the tracking service Nielsen SoundScan. Album downloads are up 2 percent, to 91.9 million. Combined, total digital sales are down almost 1 percent.
After enjoying double-digit growth in the years after Apple opened its iTunes store in 2003, song downloads began to cool several years ago. But the rate of decline this year — weekly sales began to lag in February, and the drop has accelerated rapidly in recent months — has caught the business by surprise.
Some say that, after a decade, consumers may be losing interest in buying downloads and instead turning to the streaming services, like Pandora, Spotify, Sirius XM Radio, and YouTube, which make millions of songs available at the tap of a smartphone app, free or for a few dollars a month.
Whether the services cannibalize sales, compete only with radio, or lead listeners to songs they may buy later is a matter of debate.
Still, many analysts and executives say they are bullish on the industry’s prospects.
“A variety of access models are collectively generating a healthy amount of revenue for labels and artists,” said Jonathan Lamy, a spokesman for the recording industry association. “We’ve still got a ways to go, but when you add up revenues from all of these models, in the aggregate, they represent real revenues now and prospects for a bright future.”