what happens when the volume is turned down low?
It used to be that every Wednesday morning was like being back in grade school and getting your report card. That’s the day when Soundscan sends out the previous week’s sales data for the record industry and you can figure out whether your marketing efforts such as touring, airplay and advertising were making an impact or not. You could also drill down to see things like where your album was selling…Nashville or Albany or Eugene…and at what type of store…retail chain, indie or big box. It was a day met with excitement and trepidation, and depending on the results…a day of celebration, endless meetings or job hunting.
While I’ve been away from the business almost three years now, every Wednesday I still receive an email from my old partner (who is also out of the business) with all of last week’s sales numbers that he gets from a guy we used to work with many years ago at Capitol Records (who, yes… is also out of the business). Up until about a year ago I would spend an hour each week pouring over the numbers because it was something I used to enjoy doing but in all honesty, I gave it up as a regular activity. I’ll still open up the files for a quick peak, but its better for my soul if I don’t.
A few times a year I will post something here at No Depression involving sales data…although I know that it probably interests only a few of you. But anyway…here I go again.
Let me start here: This morning an artist I know posted on Facebook that she is joining up with two other artists and releasing a new album very soon. Each artist is someone many of you here at ND would probably know of; they each have deep and rich individual catalogs and all three travel and tour fairly often. I personally was pretty excited to hear about this new project. I was one of only seven folks who “liked” this news. I would have expected more.
Expecting more…maybe that’s my theme today.
Let’s talk about a couple of artists we see and hear a lot about in this roots music community of ours. First there’s Peter Case and the new release Wig!, which is his first after a huge health scare a year or so ago. This past-Plimsoul and touring troubadour is beloved by many and written about often. I know so many people who have been anticipating this release and the label really has gotten behind it. And so it surprises me that only 794 units (defined as a combination of physical and digital sales) were sold in the first week. If I could load up a cart with this title and walk along Coney Island or the Venice beach boardwalk this afternoon, I think I could sell more than that.
And then there’s the Drive-By Truckers….a band we love, who tour constantly, have great press, a solid label effort and incredible talent. They have been everywhere it seems…both physically and virtually. I can hardly travel anywhere on the web without seeing an ad, a blurb, a post or a word. So why is it, especially from playing multiple shows every week with a well run merch table, that they sold only 628 units last week? And since the album was released back in March, they have sold a total of (only) 45,817.
Now I don’t have access to DBT’s past sales history, and am too lazy to call and get it. The Big To-Do might be their biggest to-do album yet or their slowest seller. Not a clue. But ponder this for a moment…if you figure that between studio, manufacturing, distribution and marketing costs that they’re into this for a few hundred thousand dollars, where or how do you make a profit in recording today? I think we all know that the answer is that you don’t, or at least not for most of the titles that come out. DBT and their label seem to be making all the right moves, and yet it appears to me that there could be little profit realized from the release versus the amount of effort put into it. Thankfully they are one of the best live bands on the road today, so I don’t think we need to worry too much about them not being able to generate an income. On the other hand, I have to think that the labels and distributors are in a pretty tough spot.
For nothing other than giving you an idea about how other artists fare, here’s a sampling of sales from some releases you may have read or heard about here at No Depression. (It wouldn’t be relevant to talk about Susan Boyle or Lady Gaga…so I won’t.) The first number is last week’s sales/the second is the total sales since release date (which of course vary…so it’s not apples to apples):
-Mumford and Sons-6142/82,823
-Grace Potter and the Nocturnals-5392/36,428
-Alejandro Escovedo-5133/5133 (first week out)
-Band of Horses-4193/95,594
-Court Yard Hounds-3242/147,962
-Jimmy Webb-3044/3044 (first week out)
-She and Him-2663/146,818
-Twistable Turnable Man-793/5,239
I guess it’s getting to the point where I need to make a point in this post.
So here it is…we live in a crazy world where there is no rationale as to why some things sell and others don’t. There is no ratio or formula that can determine good, better or best. If you rant about how American Idol has changed the landscape and warped the consumer’s minds, take solace in the fact that they are shutting down the summer tour due to lack of interest. If you think that illegal downloads are the root of the problem here, yesterday Prince wrote that “the internet is dead” and he’s pulling off all of his digital downloads and giving away his new release in England with the purchase of every Sunday edition of a certain newspaper. (Who says print media is dead?)
My old partner and I used to joke about what it took to make a profit in the record business. The answer was “Volume!”.
So I guess my point, or rather the question is…what do you do when the volume goes away?