Jay Z, Kanye and Gillian…is this it?
It was so nice to receive an email the other day from an old friend and former business associate of mine. She runs a record label with just one artist who, for about the past ten years or so, has always landed in the top ten on the year-end new age charts. Not particularly a niche we speak much about in these parts, nor one that maintains anywhere near the popularity of the old Windham Hill days of the eighties when the likes of George Winston, Liz Story, William Ackerman and others sold tons and tons of music.
It’s been a pretty good business through the years, at least it was until the record retailers (and especially the booksellers) starting going out of business. Now it’s become a business of selling to fans from your website and Amazon, and digital downloads mostly from the iTunes’ store. For a small record label with good music and low overhead, you can manage. Sort of. And you spend a lot of your time and energy wondering…is this it?
I phoned my friend and we reminisced about the old days, caught up on the comings and goings of people we used to work with, and tried to brainstorm a little about what else a small record label could be doing these days in a tough economy to make a go of it. While a few ideas were tossed out, it requires a little more investigation and thought, especially for someone like myself who is no longer involved in the day to day workings of the marketing and sales of music. Or as I choose to think of myself: blessed. Because, as morticians often say, “When you’re working with those who’ve passed on, you can’t help but to go home at night stinking of death”. (I made that up, but it seems about right.)
My old partner Vyto sent me last week’s music charts to take a look at. He has a friend who knows a guy who is the relative of someone who works for one of the major labels who can easily afford to subscribe to Soundscan (the weekly sales data that is only available to those who pay for it), and they secretly pass it on to those of us who don’t have such access. It’s rather expensive for many labels to afford this simple basic tool that lets them see not only how much they are selling, but where. If you have the time and inclination you can look at a bunch of data that breaks it down by store types, geographic areas, physical goods, digital downloads. I know that it’s not a very sexy part of the arts, but behind every great songwriter and musician who are off doing the creative and performance thing, somebody needs to mind the store.
Last week, Jay Z and Kanye West had the biggest selling title and I admit to being surprised at how many copies were (legally) downloaded here in the US. Out of 436,079 total albums sold, 320,893 were digital downloads. That’s almost 75%. Yikes. If you throw in the illegal torrent, rar and zip files…and also streaming from places like Spotify or Rhapsody…I’ll bet that better than 95% of the “listens” were done on a computer, phone, iPod or mobile device of some sort. You can cry all you want about your vinyl and your plastic but it seems, at least for a title such as this one, the plump lady has sung.
(Note from me to you: This isn’t some sort of digital advocacy from moi. I’m simply blogging. Merci.)
I thought it might make better sense in the context of the interests on this roots music website to look at some other titles, to see if there are any lessons or surprises. I scrolled through the data looking for something that could strike a chord and found myself looking at Gillian Welch. You know, the album that will probably be at the top of every blogger’s list this year and one that we waited breathlessly years and years and years for. It’s been out since June 28th and has sold 73,105 units so far.
Anybody want to guess how many fans bypassed the beautiful album art and packaging to go straight to digital-land? A bit over 32,000…which comes out to…wait a sec…44%. Now this title was closely guarded, at least more so than others, and the pirate crowd didn’t really start spreading it around until about ten days before street date. So I’ll guess that it has a “digital listening rate” (I should copywrite this term) of about 65%. Which goes to show what? Beats me, but I would have thought it might be the other way round, especially that so many of her fans are either “of an age” or your younger, basic granola-and-boot types. I wonder if it surprises her and Dave too?
If you’ve hung this far, I might as well throw some more numbers at you. I’ll give you the artist’s name, the total units sold of their most recent release…followed by the digital sales and percentage of digital. (They all have various release dates, so don’t assume one might a better seller than the other. Time will tell.)
Mumford and Sons: 1,716, 148/934,810/54%
Bon Iver: 234,600/131,236/56%
John Hiatt: 12,769/3,798/32%
Civil Wars: 159,707/112, 576/70%
Alison Krauss: 267,576/50,691/26%
Fleet Foxes: 239,539/101,850/42%
Head and The Heart: 66,131/47,434/71%
I don’t have the digital sales on these puppies below, just the total sales to date. I’m kind of sad that Earle’s record hasn’t sold more since I think it’s one of his best. But he tours constantly it seems, so maybe it’s a marathon as opposed to a sprint.
Ray Lamontagne: 317,502
Steve Earle: 46,502
Bright Eyes: 88,995
Dave Alvin: 11,242
No grand ending to this post; its sort of like reading through my mail and talking out loud. I find it of some interest to look at these numbers to see where the business is these days, but like most of you I don’t know what it all means. Other than that overall sales are way down compared to just a few years ago, most artists are becoming part-timers in their chosen field while toiling at “real jobs” during the day just to pay the bills, a lot of good people are out of work, a way of life that many of us grew up with is gone, and more and more people are migrating to digital delivery systems.
As my friend at the record label and I asked each other…is this it?