Why are album sales tanking?
This weekend, I got the shock of my life, courtesy of the following stats from Billboard magazine that arrived in my email inbox:
In 2009, roughly 100,000 albums were released in the U.S.
Only 2,050 sold more than 5,000 copies.
Only 12 sold more 1,000,000 copies.
To clarify, those numbers are only accounting for albums that were actually released in the 2009 calendar year. In a January 6 Billboard.com article, the 20th best-selling album of last year was listed as The Essential Michael Jackson, which sold 1.15 million. That would put the overall number of million sellers in 2009 closer to 20. Better, yes, but not exactly encouraging for either the industry, or for artists hoping to go platinum this year. Yes, singles continue to sell fairly well, but chances are you won’t be able to buy mom her dream house by selling a million copies of a $1.29 digital single.
Here’s more bad news from Billboard: In one recent week, cumulative album sales fell to 4.9 million, the lowest level since 1994, which is as far back as Nielsen SoundScan sales data goes. The highest one-week figure on SoundScan record is 45.4 million albums in late December 2000. Read all the bad news here.
As I’ve mentioned before, illegal downloading and the current economic climate are the greatest contributing factors to the increasingly rapid decline in album sales. But they aren’t the only ones. iTunes, the quality of music, and the process in which it’s made are also partly to blame, particularly in the pop-music sector. Before the advent of iTunes, an artist could build an album around a hit single or two, pad it with filler and watch it fly off record-store shelves. Buying an album was largely a leap of faith. If people liked the single, they’d buy the album, hoping there’d be more where that came from. Sometimes they’d wait until the third or fourth single, just to ensure that they weren’t spending $12 to $15 on one good song. Now with iTunes, you can sample the goods before purchasing them in the comfort of your own home and pick only the songs that you want.
Artists try to encourage full-album purchases by offering special incentives, like deluxe iTunes editions with bonus tracks, but what they should be doing is producing original, filler-free must-have albums that work as cohesive units. Most of them are simply chasing hits, trying to appeal to too many demographics at once. The music business has always been just that, a business. In the beginning, though, rock & roll was supposed to be about rebellion and iconoclasm — and I’m not talking about stripping in your videos or girls kissing girls. Now many recording artists are as much about commerce and moving “product” (a term long used behind-the-scenes by record labels that precisely describes what so much released music has become) as the executives they used to rail against.
The other day, I was speaking to a musician and producer friend who has worked with Nelly Furtado, and he explained to me how many contemporary pop albums are produced. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, and to a lesser extent the ’80s and ’90s, you had artists like the Beatles forming a long partnership with producer George Martin, Linda Ronstadt with Peter Asher, Michael Jackson with Quincy Jones, and Janet Jackson with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and others like Joni Mitchell — singer-songwriter-producers who worked as musical auteurs. When an artist collaborated with a producer or production team, they spent weeks together banging out music in the recording studio, feeding off of each other and thriving creatively on chemistry and synergy. Together, they produced decades worth of classics, critical and commercial hits such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Heart Like a Wheel, Thriller and Control.
Things have changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Now it’s all about getting rich quick. Collaborating is done by email and Fed Ex by parties who may or may not ever even end up in the same room. When a major-label star, say Nelly Furtado, begins to work on a new album, multiple producers vie for a spot on it. The work is all done on spec, so if your songs don’t end up on the album, you don’t get paid. Many top producers employ beatmakers and songwriters to churn out tracks, occasionally tweaking the finished product, over which they have ultimate final approval. So just because something is billed as a “Max Martin production” doesn’t mean his was the only hand in its creation or that he had much of a hand in it at all.
Tracks rejected by the major-label star sometimes are shopped to other artists, and the producers move on to creating more tracks for the next major-label star with an upcoming release date. This weekend, I finally got around to listening to Toni Braxton’s current album, Pulse, and I realized how this modern method of cobbling together albums can work against certain artists. Back in the ’90s, when Braxton was working mostly with Babyface, she was selling eight million copies per album in the U.S. alone. They had a special chemistry, and a Toni Braxton-Babyface song didn’t sound like anything else on the radio (except other Toni Braxton-Babyface songs).
As Braxton’s number of collaborators have increased, her album sales have decreased. Pulse, which was released in May to very little fanfare and will likely be Braxton’s first album not to go gold, boasts no less than 10 producers and around 30 songwriters on 11 tracks — and that doesn’t even take into account the songs that appear as bonus cuts on the iTunes Deluxe Edition. The most unfortunate thing about Pulse is that after a number of songs were leaked, Braxton dropped most of them and recorded new music. Too bad she was so focused on maximizing album sales. The leaked tracks are far superior to most of what she included, and had she gone ahead and released the album she recorded in the first place, not only would it have been a four-star album instead of a three-star one, but it would be a strong contender to return her to platinum form.
Braxton is a peerless singer, though, so she can push anything to at least above average, and Pulse is one of the better mainstream R&B albums likely to be released this year. But listening to it, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the tracks were discards that didn’t make the cut with Beyoncé and Alicia Keys. It’s not that Braxton is trying to imitate anyone. She doesn’t have to. But when everyone is fielding submissions from the same producers and songwriters rather than forming deep creative partnerships with one or two, there is bound to be too much aural overlap. So why was Kelly Clarkson so surprised that Beyonce’s “Halo” and her own “Already Gone,” both co-written and produced by Ryan Tedder, sound so similar?
There is only room for so many hits that sound like “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” If you already have it done to perfection on your copy of Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce, why do you need to buy three more albums with inferior knock offs? The early bird gets the hit. The ones who fly in later flop.
In the future, we will have fewer platinum-level recording stars than in previous decades and more who struggle to reach 100,000 per album. Those who do get past the one-million sales mark will have to settle for fewer platinum certifications. Consider a case like Lady Gaga. She’s the biggest pop star in the world right now, but her The Fame has only gone triple platinum (The Fame Monster EP adds another million to her tally), despite producing hit single after hit single in both its original and expanded deluxe-edition form. Back in the heyday of ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys, she would have moved three times as many copies by now. But the days of diamond (U.S. sales of 10 million and above) might be over for good.
Fortunately, there is still a lot of money to be made in publishing and licensing as well touring, which has always been how the richest pop stars made most of their money. So the music business will continue, though artists won’t be getting rich selling albums. But it’s been like this before. We’re still listening to the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart centuries after they wrote it, and not one of those guys ever sold a single album.