After a particularly anemic year that saw double-digit declines in album sales and no true blockbuster CDs, the recording industry is looking to its fall releases to deliver some much needed multiplatinum magic.
There’s reason for some hope, as the acts expected to release CDs before year’s end have in the past delivered more sales phenomenons than flops: Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood and even Britney Spears. And next week, the fall season begins with what is being hyped as an epic sales battle, with Kanye West and 50 Cent (and Kenny Chesney) putting out CDs on the same day.
But whether any of them can sell the type of huge numbers that the industry enjoyed two, three years ago — or even last year — remains to be seen. While music sales have been on the downward trend the past few years, this year’s slippage has reached alarming levels, and it’s unclear whether the release of any artist — even two powerhouses on the same day — will prompt consumers to reach for their wallets.
“We need both of those albums to be successful, those are two of our superstars,” says music publishing executive Big Jon Platt of the Kanye-50 battle. “It’s been a trying year for the business, in urban music for sure.”
“It’s impossible to predict which artist will have the runaway hit to ‘save’ the industry, but there are some very very strong candidates,” said Bob Anderson, senior vice president of national sales at SonyBMG’s Zomba label group, which includes Jive Records, home to Justin Timberlake, R. Kelly and Ciara.
“It’s really the aggregate of all these releases that will really help strengthen the industry for the year 2007.”
Linkin Park tops in sales
According to Nielsen SoundScan, album sales are down 14 percent compared to this time last year (sales for 2006 dipped 4.9 percent compared to 2005), and multiplatinum stars are finding themselves a little less multi- these days: For example, Norah Jones’ second album, “Feels Like Home,” sold more than one million albums its first week when it was released in 2004, but her latest, “Not Too Late,” topped the charts with just over 400,000 sales — and was one of the biggest openings of the year.
So far, the top debut of the year was Linkin Park’s “Minutes to Midnight” album, which sold 623,000 copies for Warner Bros. of Warner Music Group Corp. The soundtrack to the Disney TV phenomenon “High School Musical 2” was close behind, with 615,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
However, music industry executives note that this year’s roster of superstar releases has been particularly thin.
“What happened was the industry got off to a slow start in 2007 given the fact that it was a fairly lackluster new release schedule,” says Anderson. “The real success stories were somewhat few and far between.”
But even CDs that seemed destined to be strong sellers weren’t the smashes that people had hoped for, including ones by T.I. and Kelly Clarkson, who had respectable but not stellar sales. The top-selling album of the year has been the band Daughtry’s self-titled release, which, according to Nielsen SoundScan, has sold 1.9 million copies. At that pace, there might not be an album that sells more than 3 million this year.
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Industry optimists are hopeful that will turn around with the fourth quarter, which has been the traditional period for marquee-name releases, in time for the holiday buying season.
“We have some very very exciting material that should be released between now and the end of the year to increase our numbers,” says Tammy Genovese, chief operating officer of the Country Music Association, noting upcoming releases by Underwood, Chesney, Rascal Flatts and others.
“There’s always a sense of urgency when your numbers are down but I don’t look at it (pessimistically),” she said. “I cannot imagine with the releases that are coming out this year that we can’t exceed the numbers from last year. Will we? I don’t know, but there’s certainly an opportunity for us to catch up.”
Blasts from the pastThe names alone on the coming CDs spark memories of the industry’s better days: Carey, who has sold more than 60 million records in her career and who owned 2005’s best-seller, the five-times platinum “The Emancipation of Mimi,” is expected to release her follow-up for Def Jam of Island Def Jam Group; Garth Brooks, who trails only Elvis Presley and the Beatles in units sold, is releasing a greatest-hits disc with four new tracks; and 50-million seller Celine Dion, who has been off the pop scene while performing in Las Vegas for the past few years, has a No. 13 release date.
Dion’s competition that day: Spears, who hasn’t released a new album in four years. While better known now as a tabloid train wreck, she is one of the best-selling and lucrative acts of the past decade, and her headline-making behavior, no matter how erratic, is guaranteed to draw interest to any new project.
There are other multiplatinum acts due out as well, including the Foo Fighters, Keys (J Records: SonyBMG), Underwood (RCA Nashville: SonyBMG), Chesney (Sony Nashville: SonyBMG) and Rascal Flatts (Lyric Street Records: Walt Disney Co.), which was the biggest selling act of 2006 with 5 million album sold. And there are rumors that Eminem, who hasn’t put out a new album in three years, might make a return this fall.
“You always bank on your superstars, and this year it’s a heavy, credible slate of superstars coming out, all these guys could eventually be multiplatinum, and probably will,” says Platt, an executive vice president for EMI Music Publishing.
50 Cent, an artist at Interscope, a label under Universal Music Group, has sold 13 million albums off of just two titles: his 2003 debut, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” and “The Massacre,” released in 2005. “The Massacre” sold 1.1 million copies in just one week, but even 50 doesn’t think he’ll hit that mark with his new album. There’s a new reality, he says: “I think now 1 million might be 700,000.”
In fact, 50 has doubts anyone can approach those eight-million sales marks that he did with his first album in the age of legal and illegal downloads: “We’re experiencing (the impact of) technology right now.”
While both Genovese and Anderson acknowledge the hits the industry has taken from downloads, the array of entertainment options on the Web and other technologies, they believe record labels are adapting and could eventual reap the benefits of new technology. “I predict that the industry will soon experience million-selling sales weeks between physical and digital albums,” says Anderson.
Still, as optimistic as industry watchers are about the fourth quarter’s promise, there is more than a bit of worry that the malaise will continue on: “If it doesn’t (reverse), I don’t think it will shock a lot of people,” says Platt.