Strange things are afoot in the record sales market, due in part to a season of lagging sales. This week, Billboard reports that Elton John topped the UK charts for the first time in 22 years. Only it wasn’t actually his record, but merely samples he authorized for an EDM project by Aussie duo Pnau. Even more sobering is the fact that the record, titled Good Morning to the Night, is the lowest-selling number one since Y2K.
And here’s another sales anomaly for you to wrap your mind around: apparently, consumers currently prefer older records to new releases. Both Hypebot and NME are reporting that for the first time since Nielson Soundscan started keeping records, “catalog” records (albums released more than 18 months ago) have been outselling new releases, by a margin of over 3 million units during the first half of 2012.
Now, granted, there are some feasible explanations for why these things are happening. The Pnau/Elton John effort was released during a period of time when not a lot of major acts are releasing records, so there wasn’t a lot of competition—and this is a slow time of year, anyhow. There are also contributing factors to the increase in catalog sales, including the lowering of prices on older records, and the recent deaths of several music icons (Whitney Houston’s albums have seen a major surge, for example).
But that doesn’t change the fact that Pnau/Elton John only had to sell about 14,000 units last week to take the top UK sales spot—and to everyone’s knowledge, there has never been a time when old records outsold new ones overall. There has to be more to this than just some price alterations or a slow sales season.
This is mere speculation and opinion, of course, but I think there are two overarching factors contributing to the current sales anomalies:
- The record industry is still in the throes of transition, dealing with changes in the way consumers access music; and
- The music industry itself hasn’t been producing a lot of high-profile original material.
As to the first point, that’s pretty self-explanatory; anyone with any knowledge of the music business recognizes that downloads and streaming services are changing the ways people listen to music, and the industry is still playing catch-up, trying to figure out fresh ways for the labels and musicians to get paid. But the second point is worth thinking about.
In my view, it’s been a long time since the music industry has seen superstars of the caliber of U2, Whitney Houston, Cher, Aerosmith, Madonna or Michael Jackson. Britney Spears came close (in attention and sales, if not talent), and Lady Gaga and Katy Perry are sort of heading that way now—and some of these have certainly broken initial sales release records—but I think as far as lasting star power, today’s acts in general are still lacking. Even if the public doesn’t admit it, they still feel it—and it’s translating into sales trends. For whatever reason, the public isn’t looking forward to find its music right now—it’s looking backward. There might be a few temporary exceptions, but modern pop music just isn’t holding the attention of the listening audience the way it used to. So they are going back and re-discovering some of the stars of prior decades, stars who had substance to back up their style.
What is it going to take to reverse this trend for the long term? In my humble opinion, it’s going to take a group of modern artists who are willing to dig deeper than just creating hype to sell records. The public is getting wise to that trick. We need artists of substance and true talent, and we need production values that will allow those artists to shine. In short, we need records that the public isn’t just going to want to listen to for a few weeks and then forget about them; we need records that people will listen to for years to come.
Interestingly, there are two artists I currently see on the radar who really have the potential for superstardom at the level of the artists I mentioned above. One of them puts on a pretty elaborate live show, but has simple, singable songs that appeal to the public. The other has consistently outsold other artists and has stayed on the top of the charts for months, just on the power of her vocal chops.
Who are these two? Taylor Swift and Adele. Just saying.