The hook was that, for the week ending May 30, U.S. music sales figures for both new and catalog releases totaled just under five million albums, the lowest figure since Nielsen Soundscan started tracking sales in 1994 and, the magazine estimates, possibly the lowest since the Recording Industry Association of America started tracking shipments—which, of course, don’t equal sales—in 1973. (The article quotes one long-retired Warner Bros. exec as saying, “Who the hell knows what weekly sales were back then?”)
Digital track sales aren’t included in the figures, and needless to say neither are illegal downloads, which industry executives reliably continue to blame for most of their problems. Jim Urie, who as president of Universal Music Group Distribution is one of the increasingly rare top record executives who’s been around since before last month, is quoted as saying the figures provide “all the more reason why everyone in the industry should be focused on getting the U.S. Congress to introduce legislation that makes the Internet service providers our allies in fighting piracy. Piracy is getting worse and worse and the government needs to focus on that.”
The truth is, as usual, a little more complicated than that. I’m not breaking any news by noting that even for music fans who haven’t turned to illegal downloads—and surely there must be some of you out there—interest in purchasing full albums by unproven, and sometimes even proven, acts for an average price of $15 is no longer an attractive proposition; a more efficient use of money and time is to cherry-pick the tracks you like off of iTunes and move along.
Not only are the days of Thriller selling a million copies a week gone, but so too is the very concept of an album selling over five million copies total in the U.S. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen: Those sales are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.
But there’s hope on the horizon, or so Billboard would have us believe. One of the industry’s other long-lived favorite culprits, the “weak release schedule” bogeyman, has also been blamed for the current downturn. “June will be big,” Urie says. “Look at all the big records coming out, including Sara [sic] McLachlan, Drake, Miley Cyrus, Eminem and Jack Johnson.”
Yes, those are the “big records” that are going to push hordes back into buying albums again. The Drake album famously leaked on the Net last week, while Cyrus, coming off a movie bomb and the failure of her calculated onstage “lesbian” kiss to ignite hoped-for controversy appears to be teetering dangerously close to the flailing territory of post-2007 Lindsay/Britney. Johnson and, possibly, Eminem are likely past their respective sell-by dates.
As for McLachlan…what does it say when the self-proclaimed “bible of the music industry” can’t even spell her first name correctly?
Bad times may indeed have gotten worse. But they haven’t hit rock bottom yet. If I may quote another favorite tune, the record industry—grasping at Congressional and Cyrusian straws—is living what John Cale described in his formidable classic “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend”: “We're already dead, just not yet in the ground.”