Music Sales Are In Free Fall Right Now, and That Fact Still Matters

Can this man get Ted Leo paid?
Can this man get Ted Leo paid?

This week's album chart is topped by Justin Bieber, with the Canadian idol's My World 2.0 bubbling back into the No. 1 slot despite a 65% sales drop from the previous week. World moved 102,000 copies, enough to best last week's No. 1, Usher's Raymond Vs. Raymond, which sold 92,000 units and fell 72% in seven days. Precipitous declines were the theme of the week: Erykah Badu's New Amerykah Pt. 2 fell 73% (No. 9, 30,000 sales); Alan Jackson's Freight Train dropped 68% (No. 14, 23,000); and even the seemingly reliable soundtrack to Alvin & The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel saw a 61% dip (No. 28, 13,000).

Last week was not the best one for the recorded-music industry. Overall, sales were down 23% from the Bieber-boosted totals racked up a week ago (5.27 million units, down from 6.84 million) and 33% from this time last year, when the boost provided by the Academy of Country Music Awards broadcast and a monster debut from the milquetoast Nashville outfit Rascal Flatts combined to help move 7.83 million albums.

This week, the highest-ranking record to see a sales increase was Miranda Lambert's Revolution, which vaulted from No. 53 to No. 30 on a mere 9% uptick in sales (12,000). The next-highest-charting album to see an uptick is the first volume of songs from the irritating Fox dramedy Glee, which rode its parent network's endless barrage of promos to a 1% week-to-week uptick (No. 56, 7,400). That said increase was enough to help the album move up some 29 chart slots should tell you how dire things were overall.

The April 22, 2000, issue of Billboard (which also includes an article on Metallica's just-filed lawsuit against Napster) reported album sales as totaling 13.2 million -- a 60.1% decline from 2000 until now. Sure, sales that week were buoyed by the incredible success of 'N Sync's No Strings Attached, which sold 533,000 copies in its third week out. (The No. 2 record, Santana's all-star comeback effort Supernatural, had to make do with a relatively paltry 186,000-sale week.) But a year later, in 2001, sales were up 0.2% -- with Now 6, that week's top-selling album, shifting 525,000 copies. Those CD compilations of the moment's biggest hits seem somewhat quaint in the iTunes era; the current iteration, Now 33, stands at No. 5, having sold 53,000 copies this week (and 311,000 to date). One could debate the relative pop penetration of Britney Spears' "Stronger" and Destiny's Child's "Independent Women Pt. 1" versus Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" and GaGa's "Bad Romance" as being part of the problem, although it's worth noting that each of those newer songs has done quite well on its own (4.4 million and 3.6 million digital sales, respectively).

This diminished industry profile is enough to make one wonder what the point of reportage on the album charts might be. Merely saying "this album is No. 1" without any context of how said album got there - which seems to be the industry standard - results in the laziest kind of reportage, all horse-race retelling and no injury report. And in an era of streams, single-song downloads, leaks, and the relative impossibility of merely finding music that is available for purchase, the album charts may seem quaint or archaic, depending on how charitable one might be feeling. That there are other factors affecting sales of records is rarely noted as well - competition for hours and dollars from online entertainment that didn't exist 10 years ago, price hikes at the movies and inside the cable box, squeezes on lines of credit that once would have been used to go on ridiculous spending sprees at the Virgin Megastore.

The "popularity" that certain artists enjoyed in the days when musicians could be a lot more ubiquitous than they are now is gone; just ask Mariah Carey, or Diddy, or any other mega-artist who's flailed in recent years. But the context-free reportage on charts - this is No. 1, this isn't, and so on - fails to recognize that. More importantly, it ignores the most interesting stories lurking within the numbers: the mini-bursts of energy in the mid-100s reaches of the charts, the persistence of dude-rock outfits who get the silent treatment from much of the music press, the diminishment of Pitchfork's Best New Music knighthood as a galvanizing sales force (the Morning Benders' Big Echo, the most recent recipient of that honor, has sold 10,000 copies to date).

But record sales and the charts that report on them still matter. They remain a reliable measure of music's relative economic and cultural health. This is true even if the notion of buying an album is denigrated by those amateur pundits who are happy to conflate "the music industry" and "musicians" when they're feeling puffed up about their right to not pay for things. Which you'd think would be less of a valid argument in the wake of Ted Leo's illuminating interview on the economics of being in what he called "this weird middle-class of musicians". "For the rest of the lower-middle class of people who are where I'm at, record sales actually still matter quite a bit, because again it's the difference between it being a self-sustaining thing or not," he told SOTC recently. The recent chart outlining how recorded music can earn musicians minimum wage is of a piece with Leo's assertion, and it's particularly frustrating that a press so enamored with the aesthetics of "indie"-leaning bands so often fails to mention how their recorded-music model is becoming ever-more unsustainable.

Surely there are other ways to think about and digest sales numbers in such a way that make it more clear exactly who is benefiting. And, ideally, that refinement in thinking might be accompanied by another one: the realization by even the most devil-may-care downloaders that, despite caricatures of the Big Bad Big-Label Industry, there is still, after all these years, an economic benefit to musicians when one buys an album.

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