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Jun. 14 2010 - 4:41 pm | 906 views | 1 recommendation | 16 comments

Why are album sales tanking?

Cover of "I Am...Sasha Fierce (Platinum E...

Cover via Amazon

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 BandHeart 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.


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  1. collapse expand

    Really well done, Jeremy. Those album sales facts are astonishing, if not surprising.

  2. collapse expand

    The labels should release albums under the song writer’s name, performed by various artists. If you have people buying tracks (written by the same few song writers) to make their own playlists, why not provide that product from the start?

  3. collapse expand

    The recording industry is falling apart because their business model has been made just as obsolete as the buggy whip.

    We don’t need stores, advertising moguls, fancy hi-fi audio systems, and way cool recording studios. We have full PC production software, the Internet, and a common phone to do what used to take an entire industry to support.

    Now any garage band can be heard. Talent can be discovered by individuals and a search engine. The bottleneck of distribution is gone.

    Radio stations are starting to discover that people don’t like vertical formats of music. Numerous other sources such as Somafm are broadcasting their unique mixes of music over the Internet.

    People’s attentions are going somewhere else. Yeah, it’s no surprise that album sales are dropping. People are tuning in to what they want to hear, not what some program director/album sales expert thinks they want to hear.

    This is good news for budding musicians (no more indirect payola), and it is good news for the consumer. It’s not such good news if you happen to be a buggy whip maker.

    • collapse expand

      Excellent points. One area that I have not explored is radio and how radio has been affected by the current climate. There will always be casual music fans who don’t seek out new music and just accept what the radio feeds to them, but I imagine that at this point, those must be the only traditional radio listeners left.

      As for what you say about us all having the power to be producers at our disposal, true. That is why I think artists need to return to the old-fashioned method of collaboration. I think that spirit of true face-to-face collaboration produces a quality of organic music that the newfangled technology just can’t match.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Jeremy, do these figures take cumulative downloads into account? Brick and wood is dead, as are shrinkwrapped CDs. As you stated, consumers are only buying one or two songs from Amazon or iTunes or whatnot instead of whole albums, which is how it should be, really, in most cases.

    One thing, though — as a CD reviewer, I’ve noted a tack toward putting together real, bona-fide LPs, conceptually and musically. The Decembrists, for one example (they’re throwing out a bit too much depleted Queen soil, but there is a cool new-jack vibe to it), and Flying Machines for another (that’s if their album ever even came out on Sony, I can’t keep track of all that stuff). I can’t think of others right now, but believe me, the days of shitty Bowery Ballroom chorus-phobic alt-rock are just about gone.

    You do have it nailed as far as the divas. Why on earth would someone want an album with so many different producers? It’s like going from a Miss Saigon number to a Cats number into a Wicked number, if you think about it, which is a bit fucking retarded, pardon my incessant swearing.

    • collapse expand

      These figures account only for full-album downloads, so I suppose they don’t tell the entire story. There are certain artists — Usher would be a recent example — who will release an album and the week after, several songs will dent the lower rungs of the singles chart as buyers download specific tracks rather than the full album.

      It’s always refreshing when artists put together an album that’s a complete, cohesive work of art rather than just a collection of random songs. While I do sometimes like those random collections of songs, it’s almost like listening to a various-artists compilation. I imagine the thinking behind it is “let me cover all of my bases, so that something/anything will hit.” The diva may wind up with a hit single or two but middling album sales.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    Thanks for an interesting article – and for listing me in such illustrious company! I had not considered that aspect of production as a possible factor in the sales slump – but Linda R. and I (or James T. and I)certainly did put a lot of time and effort into those albums and very much enjoyed working together.
    Peter Asher

  6. collapse expand

    Mr. Helligar,

    I think it is also worth pointing out that the multi-song album is a relatively recent invention. Before the introduction of the 12″ 33 1/3 rpm record in 1948, the dominant format was the 10″ 78 rpm record with could play for 3 minutes per side. In 1949 the 7″ 45 rpm was introduced which also only played for about 3 minutes per side. Even after the multi-song 12″ LP was introduced it was not the dominant format for some time. If people even had a home record player, and a lot of people did not, they were more likely to be buy the single (78 rpm or 45 rpm) rather than the LP (33 1/3rpm) as they were considerably cheaper. Plus, you could stack up your 45’s on the automatic record player (a tall spindle with an arm and a release mechanism) and play a bunch of them in the order you wanted. Unless you wanted to play all of the songs on a 33 1/3 LP, it was actually a less convenient format, as well as the more expensive.

    Artistically, the LP was not very important for pop music as it was just a collection of singles, most of which the buyer probably did not want to hear. So unless you were recording Beethoven or Lenny Bruce, why bother? Two things changed in the ’60’s. First, a few bands started making LPs with lots of hits on them. The Beach Boys, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones and a few other groups actually produced LPs with lots of hit single on them. If you listen to “Meet the Beetles/Beatles”, there are plenty of tasty songs there, it was worth the extra cost.

    The other big change was making an LP that was not just a collection of singles but actually an integrated whole, where the songs were inter-connected to produce a bigger work. The standard here is of course “Sgt. Pepper’s” but the Moody Blue’s “Days of Future Past” is another good example. Bruce Springsteen’s albums are all best listened to only in their entirety and not as individual songs. Cindy Lauper’s debut album is like that too.

    However the world has moved on. Today’s “LP”s are once again just a collection of singles, most of which are unremarkable with one or two top 40 hits thrown in. jake brodsky’s points out the technological changes that have occurred as well.

    So all that is happened is that people have gone back to the way it was.

  7. collapse expand

    Thank you for your fascinating article and those sales figures.

    I wanted to share my experience, because I, like you, am a music lover:

    1. I am greatly affected by economic conditions, so if the economy is hurting me, I don’t buy as much.
    2. I have gotten very selective in what I buy and listen to. Although, Beyonce’s album has been excellent, the only interesting group album has come from Gorillaz.
    3. It’s all about quality, quality, quality. Everything sounds so much alike today to the extend that everyone, from Lady Gaga, to who knows who, revert to outrageous stunts to get our attention. But when you peel the layers away, there is nothing there.
    4. You mentioned, well produced TOTAL albums, such as those by Michael Jackson back in the 80s. Will we ever see anything like that again?
    5. I download from iTunes, but if I don’t like your single, or your act is fake, I will not buy the whole album. There are many 99 cent or $1.29 purchases I wish I had not made.

  8. collapse expand

    Following your comment of artists forming strong artistic relations with record producers, the French band Phoenix produced their Grammy Award-winning album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” under the tutelage and several-month-long relationship of their producer, Phillipe Zdar. The story of the production of the album is quite inspiring, and definitely adds creedence to your sentiment.

  9. collapse expand

    I am a music lover but am not clued up on the history of album sales, producers etc.

    However what I do know is that in the alternative/rock genre and demographic, a good cohesive album that works as a whole is just as saught after as ever. For example the recent release by Arcade Fire, hitting #1 in both the US and UK, has been critically revered for its consistent themes and album structure (a rather brash example is that the album starts and finishes with ‘The Suburbs’ Part 1 + Part 2 respectively Other examples of successful bands that are still using the proper album format are Radiohead and Gorillaz.

    I’m not really clued up enough to properly engage in your debate (fantastic article, by the way). I was just wondering what your opinions were of the bands (its normally bands.. those that exclusively write their own music, I guess) that are still coming out with albums that work fantastically as a whole.

    • collapse expand

      Hi, Nick. Thanks for the compliment and the comment. I think you are correct. Historically, bands have been the ones to create the majority of the truly cohesive albums. I believe this has to do with the fact that bands generally write their own material and employ only one producer per album.

      To be honest, I haven’t been blown away by too many recent band albums. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of R.E.M., which is my second-favorite band of all time (after the Smiths). I prefer what they did in the ’80s and ’90s better than what they are doing today in much the same way that I prefer “The Bends” and “OK Computer”-era Radiohead.

      Meanwhile, a band like Muse does a great job recording albums that work as a whole, but there are always spots that completely lose me. And then there’s Keane. “Under the Iron Sea” is probably one of the last band albums that I completely flipped for, but their recent EP is a perfect example of non-cohesiveness. In trying to regain their commercial footing and appeal to as wide a range of people as possible, they created an EP that lacks focus and is all over the place. It’s just a bunch of songs, and only a few of them are very good.

      Two of my favorite bands right now both of which I think could create great five-star albums in the future are Yeah Yeah Yeahs and La Roux. I’m especially interested in seeing what La Roux does next. Their first album sounds like it was created in a rush and with little money, and it still worked so well. With more time and a bigger budget, they might be capable of real electro masterpiece.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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