Jim Dalrymple

At SXSW, it's an iTunes world

March 14, 2014: 5:14 PM ET

By Jim Dalrymple, Austin

Soundgarden's Chris Cornell films the audience with his iPhone. Photo: Richard Kerris.

Soundgarden's Chris Cornell films the audience with his iPhone. Photo: Richard Kerris.

FORTUNE -- You might think that the music album died when iTunes caught on, letting customers buy the songs they want -- and only those songs -- for $0.99 apiece. But that's not how the headliners at Apple's (AAPL) iTunes Festival in Austin, Texas, see it.

I've spoken to a number of musicians this week about the digital music market and what it's like selling their songs on iTunes, and to my surprise they are still focused on the album. They see it as a collection of work from a particular period in their career.

"I think what's changed is how young people approach it," says Soundgarden's Chris Cornell. "Sometimes people are less likely to sit and listen to an entire album, but we are clearly an album-oriented band. I don't see us ever not being like that -- it's what we do and who we are."

"Our fans know, they are going to sit and listen to a record, instead of the one hit song that's been playing on the radio," adds Ben Shepherd, Soundgarden's bass player.

Soundgarden's fans might be listening to whole albums, but most music buyers aren't. According to Nielsen SoundScan, sales of analog music -- a rough proxy for album sales -- fell to 4.25 million units for the week of Jan. 12, their lowest level ever.

Meanwhile songs are being downloaded from iTunes at the rate of nearly 150 million a week, 21 million songs a day, 15,000 per minute.

That gives iTunes -- with a catalog of 26 million songs in 119 countries and total sales, as of February, of more than 25 billion songs -- a certain clout in the marketplace. If the timing and the artist are right, and if Apple can secure an an iTunes exclusive, as it did with Beyoncé in December, iTunes can move a lot of albums. A record 828,000 copies of her self-titled BEYONCÉ album were downloaded in three days, a iTunes record.

"As a fan, I still buy albums, whether they're downloads from iTunes or not," says Sebu Simonian from the band Capital Cities. "I think a lot of fans still function that way. Most bands still follow that same formula of putting out a collection of songs -- these days, it just happens to be digital."

Dalrymple

Dalrymple

"The separation between the artist and the listener is getting smaller every day," says Daniel Platzman the drummer for Imagine Dragons, which played Tuesday. "Yes, albums are great and the artwork is great, but our show is being streamed to millions of people tonight -- that never would have happened back in the day."

"There is something very personal about a record collection," says Dan Reynolds, Imagine Dragons' singer. "You can be sad about it [the change to digital] or you can embrace it. As artists we are still trying to create something that is very personal for our fans."

Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, an iTunes user, says he still buys music like he used to -- an album at a time.

"If I hear a song a really like, I buy the whole record, I never just buy that one song," said Cornell. "One song would get lost in your iPod list of thousands of songs."

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