Merchants are describing this year’s holiday-season sales as a roller-coaster ride. That could hardly be said about the full-year sales experience. At least a roller coaster offers the contrast of intermittent highs and lows.
Album sales started with one long rise toward a hopeful tally for the first eight months of 2004, followed by a steep decline that stole back most of the year’s advances in just a few weeks, as if a thrill ride had been designed by a party pooper who did not fully grasp the concept.
But maybe a better analogy – as Ludacris replaces Jay-Z and Linkin Park atop the Billboard 200 – can be found in the recurring plot of a beloved situation comedy from days gone by, because this year’s sales story played out like one of Mary Richards’ parties.
If you’re old enough to remember that era when TV networks actually scheduled their most popular shows on a Saturday night, you’ll recall that Mary was the central character of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” She was a charmer who, in the words of the show’s theme, could “turn the world on with her smile,” was surrounded by a pack of loyal friends and always lived in a great apartment. Yet despite those promising ingredients and her best efforts, the running gag was that Mary’s parties always turned into disasters.
In the music business, cause for optimism actually preceded the strains of “Auld Lang Syne,” when the otherwise dreary year that was 2003 ended on an upbeat note. After more than two years of steady declines, a rally began in September 2003 and continued through most of the fourth quarter, as a deficit from prior-year sales fell from about 8% for most of that year to a narrower gap of 3.6%.
The merriment spilled into the New Year. There were weeks when the Billboard 200’s top 10 was soft, yet volume still outpaced the same frames of the previous year. Even during two January weeks in a row when the No. 1 album sold fewer than 100,000 copies – a sight the chart had not seen in any week since May 1993 – the gains prevailed.
No album had a million-plus week in all of 2003, but Norah Jones’ “Feels Like Home” gave us one in February during a week when Valentine’s Day and the Grammy Awards pumped overall sales even higher. Usher’s “Confessions” repeated the favor six weeks later and established quickly that it would be this year’s best seller.
The average total for a No. 1 album has been higher in 2004 (357,379) than it was last year (325,689 through the first 50 weeks). The same is true for the averages at No. 100 (12,819 vs. 12,637) and at No. 200 (6,189 vs. 5,983), so everything seemed festive until the middle of September, when the industry began to compete with bigger numbers that made the last four months of 2003 a seeming cause for celebration.
Suddenly, we found ourselves at one of Mary Richards’ parties, as album sales have lagged behind those of the comparable 2003 frame for 13 straight weeks. Album volume, which led the 2003 pace by 8% or more through most of the first seven months, now stands only 2% ahead of where we were 12 months ago. Bah, humbug.
Perhaps a more fitting comparison comes from another ’70s show that I did not watch as often. After the producers of “Dallas” thought better of killing off the character of Bobby Ewing, a season finale found him standing in the shower, a development that rendered all of that year’s episodes no more than one long dream sequence.
I remain convinced that the physical album still faces a long, stubborn life in the years to come, but those triumphant numbers that rang for the 12 straight months that began with September 2003 almost seem now like a dream that never happened.
FORWARD AND BACK
Regardless of whether the Dec. 14 slate that included new titles from 2Pac, Ashanti and Xzibit can compete with the 2003 week when Alicia Keys’ latest returned to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with a sales frame of 370,000, there are a couple of silver linings ahead.
Leap year adds not one, but two extra shopping days before the holiday of Christmas week. And, with Dec. 31 falling on a Friday, this will mark the first time since 1998 that Nielsen SoundScan’s tracking includes a 53rd week.
In the meantime, Ludacris scores his third straight No. 1 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and his second consecutive chart-topping bow on the Billboard 200.
With 322,000 copies, “The Red Light District” starts faster than his “Word of Mouf ” did in 2001 (282,000) but slower than last year’s “Chicken*N*Beer” (429,500).
Joining the top 10 is rookie Lindsay Lohan, whose “Speak” enters at No. 4 with 261,000. That is a faster start than either of the pop albums by fellow teen actress Hilary Duff, whose best opener was 204,000 last year for “Metamorphosis.” In fairness to Duff, though, Lohan’s album arrived in a week with busier store traffic.
There is a Ray Charles gift set being sold at Starbucks called “Box of Genius.” It includes his “Genius Loves Company,” a Rhino-compiled “Visionary Soul” that is exclusive to the coffee chain and a $5 gift card.
The additional CD means this offering cannot be merged with his Hear/Concord album, but if it were, it would stand two places higher than its No. 22 rank on the Billboard 200.
Similarly, Wonder Workshop has a $4.98-list title from the Wonder Kids called “My Travel Time Christmas Songs” that is not eligible to chart. Although not sold exclusively, it is nonetheless stocked only at Wal-Mart and thus not generally available in retail.
If it could chart, it would have logged four weeks on Top Heatseekers, peaking at No. 2, and three weeks on Top Kid Audio, with a No. 6 peak.