Leah Greenblatt
April 13, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s hard out there for a pop star: As CD album sales continue to plummet — the latest year-to-year figures put them down 20.5 percent so far in 2007 — some usually reliable hitmakers are pulling the lowest numbers of their careers. Jennifer Lopez’s Spanish-language album, Como Ama Una Mujer, bowed April 3 with soft one-week sales of 48,000, down from 2005’s Rebirth, which debuted with 261K. That same week, Good Charlotte entered with sales of 66K, a stark drop from 2004, when The Chronicles of Life and Death sold almost 200K. Only three disparate artists — Norah Jones, Fall Out Boy, and Celtic Woman — have gone platinum this year.

But fringy bands on small labels have been notching surprisingly strong numbers: The Shins’ Wincing the Night Away (out on Sub Pop Records) debuted at No. 2 in January with a group-best 118K; Arcade Fire (who record for Southern imprint Merge) overcame their unusual provenance — they’re a Canadian art-rock collective — to hit No. 2 in March with their second album, Neon Bible. And postpunk Brit quartet Bloc Party’s A Weekend in the City (Vice Records) matched J. Lo’s first-week numbers in February. That these bands are succeeding in a tough climate is even more impressive. ”The pie is definitely getting smaller,” says Sub Pop marketing head Steve Manning. ”Our piece is still a sliver, but it’s bigger than ever.”

In an effort to capitalize on indie rock’s recent unexpected success, Vice Records is launching the first in a compilation series — á la the hugely successful Top 40-heavy NOW That’s What I Call Music! CDs — featuring the Shins, Bloc Party, and other genre rockers like Cat Power and Bright Eyes. ”These artists are getting media exposure, [but] they’re not necessarily crossing over,” says Adam Shore, general manager for Vice Records, which aims to release the set in July. ”It’s for the casual fan.” Regardless of who buys the discs, nobody at the indie labels is complaining about the recent upswing. Says Manning: ”If we sell 5,000 records, that’s a success. You can’t say that with the overhead of a major label. For us, big sales are an anomaly — but a great anomaly.”

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