New data indicates that digital music downloads have experienced their sharpest decline in sales on record.

The drop exceeds 20 percent year on year, and again calls into question the viability of the format as the use of streaming services as an alternative to downloads continues to grow at breakneck speed, along with the questionable practice of stream-ripping.

The numbers are in, and it certainly doesn't look good for sales of digital music downloads. The data for the first half of 2016 shows total digital download sales stalled at 404.3 million, as opposed to 531.6 million for the first half of 2015. That's a decline year on year of a whopping 23.9 percent.

Meanwhile, the use of music streaming services continues to grow exponentially, with the number of audio streams almost doubling year on year. In the first half of 2015, a total of 57.5 billion audio streams were registered, while in 2016, that number shot up to 113.6 billion.

Video streams also increased by a healthy 28.6 percent, growing from 74.1 billion in the first half of 2015 to 95.3 billion in the first half of 2016. Overall combined streams increased by 58.7 percent, growing from 131.6 billion in the first half of 208.9 billion in the first half of 2016.

Note that the above figures include on-demand audio streams only, meaning that figures for radio streaming services such as Pandora and iHeartRadio aren't even included.

In addition, the video streams category includes streams intended by users to listen to only music on YouTube in addition to those desiring to view actual video streams. As YouTube has become a leading source of music discovery and listening, with the video component for many users remaining essentially irrelevant, the numbers for those using YouTube as a non-video, music-only streaming service would only bolster the audio streaming figures.

The decline in digital download sales could also be YouTube-related in an additional way. Stream-ripping, the practice of using an online or downloaded converter extension to create a permanent digital download of any song on YouTube, SoundCloud and other on-demand streamers, has become ubiquitous, and its use grew by 25 percent last year. While the legality of the practice is questionable, Google has been unsuccessful thus far in its attempts to prevent stream-ripping.

That means that, while sales of digital downloads may in fact have plummeted, it doesn't necessarily mean overall use of them has gone down. While many music fans have indeed converted to streaming, millions still want to own permanent copies of songs.

It appears, however, as if stream-ripping has taken a significant bite into the number of listeners who are willing to actually pay for the right to download their music digitally when they can easily create their own converted download files free of charge.

ⓒ 2021 All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.