I’ve used this space to write about the wave of retro mania a few times, but now my anecdotes about the Tupac hologram and its zombie ilk have hard data behind them: Last week, Billboard reported that sales of catalog albums outpaced those of new records during the first six months of 2012. Current albums (less than 18 months old) 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. In the wake of this news, my Seattle Weekly colleague Chris Kornelis looked at how pricing of new releases versus 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 the “catalog” side of things features more albums by well-known artists and 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, which ranges from radio to the iTunes Store to the shelves at Target.
Radio and other mass outlets are becoming more conservative and focusing more on the past. Have you been to a Target lately? (It’s not uncommon for it, or another big-box outlet, to be the only music retailer in some areas of New York City—a far cry from even 10 years ago.) The last time I was in one, 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 Seattle Weekly on how so many radio stations are becoming more cautious with their playlists because of the Portable 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 to 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.)
To see the effects of this strategy, you need look no further 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, the former home of r&b outlet KISS-FM, and 101.9, which housed the rock station WRXP) 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.
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 could be seen as part of the discovery chain, are even worse. The list of the top 100 songs in the U.S., for example, has had certain songs in it since the service’s launch last spring, in large part because its catalog is pretty impenetrable to people who don’t have a lot of time to browse.) Incentives like Amazon’s crazy-deep discounting of certain releases only encourage this type of cocooning.
Some artists are responding to this trend by taking greater control of their back catalogs, so they can make more money from them. The Britpop outfit Squeeze, whom I saw perform an utterly crisp set at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury on Sunday night, released an album called Spot the Difference a couple of years back that contained re-recordings of their iconic New Wave hits; powerhouse arena outfit Def Leppard is doing the same with its towering back catalog. Whether these new versions of radio staples will reach a critical mass of people who just want to hear “Black Coffee in Bed” or “Pour Some Sugar on Me” remains to be seen.
The news cycle has more of an effect on album sales than almost any music-centric promotional outlet. 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. With the decline of mass music-video outlets and the increasing conservatism of radio, not to mention the niche nature of music-centric media, the mainstream media 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. Richie’s new album, Tuskegee, on which he reworks old hits with current country stars, had its sales boosted by a TV special. And newer artists are engaging in this sort of cross-promotion as well; last week, the hotly tipped r&b singer Frank Ocean used his platform on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon to announce that he was releasing his album on iTunes that night—a week before its official street date—thus allowing people who enjoyed his performance to engage in instant gratification. 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.
EDITOR’S NOTE: On Tuesday morning, after this issue went to press, 101.9 FM flipped back to a music-centric format.