The winners in the music biz are not the ones you'd expect.

By Chris Willman
January 23, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Is the music business making a comeback, or is it still in the crapper? Depends how you look at it. Sales were down 3.6 percent in 2003 — but that’s good news, since they’d plummeted 10.7 percent the year before. And thanks to recent smashes by Alicia Keys, Toby Keith, and OutKast, the fourth quarter was up 4.3 percent over the same period in 2002. Here are some of the musical year’s other mixed messages:

DUFF LUCK The so-so performance of Britney’s In the Zone might be another nail in the teen-pop coffin. But maybe it’s just a nail for me-so-horny teen pop, since Hilary Duff’s doing dandy as ”the new Britney.” After the teaser of the Lizzie McGuire soundtrack (1.64 million), Duff’s Metamorphosis sold 2.4 million, versus 1.58 mil for Spears’ Zone, which came out later but is eating Duff’s dust.

STATUTORY RAP Judging by Chocolate Factory’s 2.44 million sold, there’s little R. Kelly can do wrong in the eyes of fans — except maybe produce a single for fellow scandal-ridden artist Michael Jackson, who received little of the forgiveness afforded Kelly, as Number Ones found a scant 413,000 Thriller seekers.

HAT TRICK Country sales were down almost 6 percent — and yet Toby Keith had the biggest album of the last two months (2.3 million in eight weeks). Rap was down 9 percent — but 50 Cent had the year’s top album (6.54 million).

UNHAPPY ENDINGS Pink, Missy Elliott, and Kid Rock spent the first half of 2003 riding high on multiplatinum triumphs…and ended it with sub-million-selling follow-ups. Talk about shocking Pink: With just 532,000 sold, Try This will have to try harder to catch up with her Missundaztood’s 5 million scans.