Los Angeles – Will it be a blue Christmas in the music business?
The first eight months of 2004 were a romp, when labels and retailers were measuring their progress against the soft numbers from the first two trimesters of 2003. The question looming then was how numbers would hold up when we got to September, which was the point last year when same-week increases bloomed for the first time in almost three years.
The answer so far? Not so great.
Even with collective sales of this week’s top 10 on the Billboard 200 outweighing that from the comparable week of 2003 by more than 16%, overall volume lags for a seventh straight week. Comparing next week’s charts to the same week last year, which heralded the arrival of Toby Keith’s “Shock’N Y’all” at more than 500,000 units, you can pretty much expect that streak will extend to eight.
For much of the first eight months, album volume was more than 8% ahead of 2003, and in the week ending Sept. 12, the last one before the slide began, sales were still 7.2% ahead. Now, the margin has worn down to 4.5%.
The president of one distribution company thinks the gain could be as small as 3% while the stats-hawk at another thinks we will end up in the range of 2%-3%. Mind you, that would still be better than the losses posted for each of the years from 2001 to 2003, but considering the way 2004 began, many people probably expected the industry to build a bigger bump by the time Santa Claus finished his rounds.
Aside from competing with stronger numbers from the tail end of 2003, one of the tough challenges this quarter is that so many of this year’s promising releases are all bunched up in the third and fourth Tuesdays of November.
Eminem looks a good bet to rally a million-plus week, as his last two albums did. His latest was slated for Nov. 16, the same day as the new Destiny’s Child, but has been pushed to an off-cycle date of Nov. 12. U2 lands Nov. 23. Hits sets by country superstars Keith and Shania Twain come earlier, but both reach stores Nov. 9, the same day as Britney Spears.
The above are just the headlines, as other A-list artists will arrive during those weeks, including Snoop Dogg, Chingy and “American Idol” finalists Fantasia and Clay Aiken, which leads me to ponder a few questions.
How many more acts would have had shots at being No. 1 for at least one week on the Billboard 200 if some of these acts had arrived earlier in the year? And might we have sprinkled a few positive weeks among the declines we’ve seen for the last couple of months if these releases had been more evenly spaced?
Most important, from the artist’s point of view: Have any of these albums been condemned to a shorter shelf life by arriving so late in the game?
From last year’s crop, OutKast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” was a great example of a hot fourth-quarter release that continued to sell well when the new year arrived. It doesn’t often work that way; each year we notice that some of the big dogs unleashed late in the year hit a wall as soon as the holiday weeks pass.
The problem with hypothetical questions like the ones posed here is that they can never conclusively be answered. But my ample gut tells me that 2004 might have ended on a more cheerful note if some of these much-anticipated releases had arrived sooner.
As hard fought as the campaign battle was between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, those two guys get along with each other better than the pair that leads the Billboard 200. As their much-publicized tour dissolved into an acrimonious duel of accusations and at least one lawsuit, Jay-Z and R. Kelly find themselves strange bedfellows above two charts.
Like “The Best of Both Worlds,” the dysfunctional duo’s earlier outing, this one scales the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. But, with an opening week of 215,000 copies, the new “Unfinished Business” goes where the earlier joint effort failed to reach: No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
There is more irony to the new album’s chart-topping status. For one thing, this set is essentially leftovers from “The Best of Both Worlds.” Further, that 2002 title actually had a bigger start, 223,000 units, yet was blocked on the big chart by “Now 9.”
Speaking of the “Now That’s What I Call Music!” series, the latest edition, “Now 17,” is poised to lead the list next week.
First-day numbers reported by chains have soothsayers predicting that the new “Now” will start with at least 325,000-350,000, and the potential to go even higher. A Perfect Circle’s new “eMOTIVe” is pegged to scan 150,000 or more.
For the second week in a row, the late Ray Charles owns Greatest Gainer honors on the Billboard 200 and Top Pop Catalog. For good measure, he also wins the Pacesetter ribbon on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums.
The biographical film “Ray” opened wide during the tracking week, and its soundtrack stirs the largest unit gain on the big chart (23-10, up 50%) and the largest percentage increase on the R&B list (33-9, up 123%).
He holds two top 10 spots on both lists, as his posthumous duets album, “Genius Loves Company,” stands at No. 8 on the former and No. 10 on the latter.
This is the first time since 1963 that Charles has two top 10s at once on a pop albums chart.
In January of that year, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (Volume Two)” was No. 6, while the earlier “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” was No. 10 on Top 150 Best Sellers-Monaural, back in the days when Billboard also published a separate chart for stereo LPs.
The Greatest Gainer on the catalog list is “The Very Best of Ray Charles,” which also becomes the beloved artist’s first No. 1 on that chart (2-1, up 58%).
Also on the Top Pop Catalog, Charles’ “Anthology” bullets from No. 7 to No. 4, up 24%.
Combined, the four Charles collections sold 182,500 for the week, according to Nielsen SoundScan.