What you can learn from the latest album sales | EW.com


What you can learn from the latest album sales

Evan Serpick gets a chart insider's view of what happened in 2001, and what to expect in 2002

Alicia Keys

(Alicia Keys: Chris Ashford/Camera Press/Retna)

What you can learn from the latest album sales

For stat geeks, the Soundscan Year-End Music Industry Report provides a sea of digits to pore over and try to discern the future of the music industry. And after a year like 2001, when total music sales were down 5 percent, industry executives will be taking an even closer look at the numbers than usual. To get some insight of our own into the year that was, EW.com talked to Geoff Mayfield, charts editor for Billboard magazine.

The top story, or course, is the overall downturn in the industry. For the first time since Soundscan started tracking album sales in 1992, sales were down from the previous year. But Mayfield says you have to go back a lot farther than that to find a similar dropoff. ”It’s probably the first down year that the industry has had in 18 years,” says Mayfield. And that was the year Quiet Riot’s ”Metal Health” was a No. 1 album. Ouch.

The economic recession and the Sept. 11 attacks are generally blamed for the downturn, but Mayfield says even without those factors, it would’ve been tough for the industry to match the previous year’s phenomenal numbers. ”2000 was kind of an anomaly,” he says. ”We may never see a year quite like that, where you had so many acts being in the right place at the right time and connecting with the public in the manner that they did.”

Mayfield’s numbers add up: From 1992 through 1999, three artists sold more than a million copies their first week out. In 2000, six artists did. Prior to 2000, no more than four sold more than 5 million copies in year. In 2000, seven did. In 2001, the top-seller, Linkin Park’s ”Hybrid Theory,” sold just 4.8 million copies.

Beyond the overall downturn, the most glaring change from 2000 to 2001 is the drop in sales of rap albums – from 105.5 million albums in 2000 to 89.3 million in 2001. At first, it might seem like the popularity of hip-hop (after rising for the last 25 years) might have peaked. But a closer look indicates that the genre isn’t selling fewer CDs; it’s just seeping into more of the CDs that are sold.

Of the top 10 albums of 2001, only Shaggy’s ”Hotshot” was included in Soundscan’s rap category. But at least seven of the year’s top 10 mix rap elements into rock (Linkin Park, Staind), R&B (Alicia Keys, Destiny’s Child), or pop (‘N Sync, ”NOW 6”). Arguably, hip-hop was a greater force in 2001 that it had ever been. ”As rap insinuates other music forms, it gives people another place to go to get that same flavor,” says Mayfield.

But as more artists infuse their music with hip-hop elements, purists worry that suburban, middle-American youth (read: white kids), who have long been the larger percentage of rap consumers, will stop buying pure rap albums and the industry will suffer. It’s significant that the best-selling straight rap album of 2001, Nelly’s ”Country Grammar,” came out in 2000.

”You just don’t see as many rap-only titles among the top 20 bestsellers this year as you did in the previous year,” Mayfield says. He notes that the year’s most promising rap titles, like Ja Rule’s ”Pain Is Love” and Jay-Z’s ”Blueprint,” came out late in the year, preventing them from racking up significant sales, but adds: ”Still, none of the rap titles that were released in the first eight or nine months of the year hung around long enough to get the kind of sales base that Nelly did. That’s really a sign of concern.”

Another major trend in 2001 was the further elimination of the single as a consumer product. Sales of singles dropped 40.9 percent in 2001, largely because labels didn’t release most major radio hits as consumer singles, as they have in the past. ”People in the industry think that if they put singles out, albums will sell less than they would if they didn’t release a single,” explains Mayfield.

”Singles used to be a way that you taught kids to be music consumers,” he adds. ”And now, when there is file-sharing on the Internet, and there is the ability to burn a CD, you make it impossible for a kid to buy his favorite song on a single? You’re kind of teaching the kid to steal music.”

When Roadrunner bucked the industrywide trend and released one of the year’s biggest radio hits, Nickelback’s ”How You Remind Me,” as a consumer single, it sold terribly, even though the album moved 2.63 million copies this year on the strength of that single. ”It didn’t get the kind of sales numbers that it would have gotten even two years ago because consumers weren’t expecting to find it,” says Mayfield.

What? Record labels making stupid decisions in an effort to squeeze more money out of kids? Couldn’t be. With several artist lawsuits pending (Courtney Love will not rest, it seems), ongoing battles over file-sharing, and a worsening economy, 2001’s 5 percent downturn may seem like a toe stub compared to the train wreck that awaits in 2002. Keep your calculators handy and stay tuned…

2001’s Top 10 Albums (total sales)

1 Linkin Park, ”Hybrid Theory” (4.81 million)
2 Shaggy, ”Hotshot” (4.51 million)
3 ‘N Sync, ”Celebrity” (4.42 million)
4 Enya, ”Day Without Rain” (4.41 million)
5 Staind, ”Break the Cycle” (4.24 million)
6 Alicia Keys, ”Songs in A Minor” (4.10 million)
7 Destiny’s Child, ”Survivor” (3.71 million)
8 Creed, ”Weathered” (3.58 million)
9 ”O Brother Where Art Thou?” Soundtrack (3.46 million)
10 Various Artists, ”Now That’s What I Call Music, Vol. 6” (3.13 million)