This week the news came out that sales of catalog albums outpaced those of new records during the first six months of 2012. Current (less than 18 months old) albums sold 73.9 million copies between January 2 and June 1, down from 82.8 million in the first six months of 2011; catalog albums sold 76.6 million copies, up from 72.6 million over last year’s first half. My Seattle Weekly colleague Chris Kornelis went in-depth about how pricing of new releases vs. catalog titles helped create this scenario; deep discounting of certain older albums, in both physical and digital form, certainly makes the prospect of buying them more alluring to those people who simply want to add something, anything to their libraries. There’s also the simple fact that there are simply more albums by well-known artists in the “catalog” side of things, not to mention the corollary that labels are getting more savvy about exploiting their vaults. (Hey, it saves money on recording!) But there are a few other factors at play that involve how people discover music in 2012, and they run the gamut from radio to the iTunes Store to the shelves at Target.
1. Radio and other mass outlets are becoming way more conservative and focusing more on the past. Have you been to a Target lately? (In the mall near where I am right now, Target and Hot Topic are the only two places to buy new music. This particular mall has at least three cell-phone-centric outlets.) I went to one last night, and it seemed like there were more housewares themed around music consumables than there were albums on the shelves. (Or at the very least the pillows and trays were organized in a better way.) And there were lots of catalog titles available—greatest-hits collections, big albums from established stars, and the like. The new-releases section was comparatively puny.
It’s the same with radio; earlier this month Kornelis wrote a piece for the Seattle Weekly on how so many radio stations are becoming more cautious with their playlists because of the Personal People Meter, Nielsen’s new device for measuring ratings. Its data shows that people are more likely to switch channels when unfamiliar songs come on; the incentive to play new songs is, therefore, diminished from a business-side perspective. (Think, too, about all the websites out there that are devoting as much, if not more, time to rehashing the same old music stories as they are to talking about new artists. The economics of hyper-analyzed media consumption patterns just don’t allow for much room for experiment on the part of outlets, unless they can afford to put people on traffic-mongering duty. Perhaps the radio equivalent would be having a crazy-popular show during the AM and PM drives, and then allowing for light rotation songs to creep in during the wee hours.)
You need look no further to see the effects of this strategy than New York City, where there is no commercial station devoted to current rock or current country, and where two music-centric FM outlets in prime places on the dial (98.7 and 101.9) have been replaced by talk-heavy formats. Yes, iPods and satellite radio and streaming-music services have taken away some radio listeners, but the medium’s promotional power is still quite formidable, and as it becomes more conservative the trickle-down effect is undeniable. (For a tracks-based corollary to this, just look at how songs have stuck around the top of the Hot 100 for weeks at a time this year. The art at the top of the linked piece, by the way, is a screenshot taken in March; four months later, two of those three songs are still in Spotify’s top three tracks. “Call Me Maybe” is the only new entrant.)
2. The design of digital-music stores encourages people to stick with the familiar. What with “personalization,” spotlighting of the already-popular in order to assist people who might be interested in checking out that Adele lady, and having to cram a lot of information about new releases into a small space—which often results in a store’s front page being a bunch of album-cover thumbnails with no context—finding truly new music is a tough row for people who aren’t completely immersed in music. (Streaming-music services like Spotify, which don’t count here but which could be seen as part of the discovery chain, are even worse; the top 100 songs in the US list, for example, has had certain songs in it since the service’s launch over here, in large part because Spotify’s catalog is pretty impenetrable to people who don’t want to spend a long time sifting through playlists made by others.) Incentives like Amazon’s crazy-deep discounting of certain releases only encourage this type of cocooning.
3. News has more of an effect on album sales than almost any music-centric promotional outlet these days. Two of the five top catalog albums of 2012’s first six months had Whitney Houston, who died in February, at their core; her greatest-hits collection sold 818,000 copies, making it the fourth-best-selling album of the year so far (behind Adele, Lionel Richie, and One Direction), and the soundtrack to The Bodyguard sold 202,000 copies. The top five was rounded out by Adele (no surprise there), Bruno Mars (whose 2010 release Doo-Wops and Hooligans benefited from a healthy, if not Adele-level post-Grammy sales bump), and Maroon 5 (thanks, The Voice). The non-music-centric media world is much better at getting the word out that, yes, music exists and is still available for purchase somewhere despite the lack of mall stores bearing that claim; just look at how record sales for Richie’s new album Tuskegee, which is itself a record full of him remaking his old hits with current country stars, were boosted by a special reminding people of its existence airing on broadcast TV, or how the customary post-Grammy sales bump seemed even more pronounced this year. People do still like buying music, contrary to the naysayers and torrenting triumphalists; but it generally helps for them to know that they can still do so.
Oh, and the Adele album that’s currently at the top of the heap for 2011, having sold 3.6 million records since the calendar flipped? It’s technically a catalog release now; it came out January 11, 2011. So expect more stories like this at the end of the year, when the difference will be even more lopsided thanks to that album’s huge numbers. (It’s the only record to break a million copies sold this year; Tuskegee sold 912,000 units between January 2 and July 1.)