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Damage and joy divide shops, artists and labels

When downloads first became a factor the worry was not that album sales would be reduced just that physical sales would drop dramatically. Downloads were a great boon for record companies as they had no physical cost, there was no need to guess manufacturing numbers and there were no delivery costs. Soon the worry became illegal downloads and for a while they were considered a serious issue but now it has to be faced that youngsters simply don’t listen to albums like folk used to but even that doesn’t explain just how far album sales have fallen.

No doubt there are older customers who would buy an album but allow them to stream for free and they no longer feel the need to physically own an album enough to fork out hard cash. So where are we now ? At the very top the figures are still massive. Ed Sheeran’s new album is already well over the million and showing no sign of stopping. This week it sold another 100K. To put that in perspective new releases this week from Jamiroquai sold 22K and Goldfrapp sold just under 12K. An even closer comparison is the figures for the new James Blunt album which sold 24K on release two weeks ago and then another 7K this week, the sort of figures Ed manages on a busy day in the supermarkets.

And there is part of the answer to how these huge figures are achieved. Obviously James Blunt is available in supermarkets too but artists like Ed Sheeran and Adele rack up massive sales in supermarkets and continue to do so week after week another factor as even artists who achieve decent sales in the first week to their dedicated fans often see sales drop off dramatically.

So how are things lower down the food chain ? Well in the 80s and 90s when a big indie band signed to a major the expectation was that their album would sell at least 20K to 30K, might easily reach 50K and on occasion would become a big hit and do far better. Now of course older “big” bands don’t need a major label and will on most occasions have a two pronged plan. First of all they will target their hardcore fan base or the superfans as PledeMusic call them and then they will hope that casual fans will buy from HMV and Amazon. They may indeed use Pledge or do it themselves via a platform that specialises in pre-sells.

A decade or so it became a commercial fact that it was easier to help a successful band on the wane target their fans than to break a new band. Email lists and the internet were a godsend to these bands. From then on the writing was on the wall for new artists trying to break through to an audience beyond their hometown.

Given all that it is stil hard to explain why bands who can easily sell out big venues on an extensive UK tour wil regularly only sell around 5K of a new album and sometimes leas than a thousand. Yes people are going to the gigs for all the old hits but even so ….

A typical example is the new Jesus and Mary Chain album. They sold their album directly to fans including the usual bundles. These bundles matter because it means that the registered sales are inflated as one custoner buying a t-shirt/vinyl/cassette package will count twice and maybe they’ll splash out and buy a signed white label and count three times. There were 286 Mary Chain cassettes sold but you can guarantee most were sold as part of a bundle. Similarly those very limited signed white labels at £60 each were not that limited with 85 sold just in the UK never mind worldwide.

The majority of the limited “indies only” orange vinyl were unsurprisingly also sold by the band with shops running out almost immediately. The total sales were just over 6K with a further 1.2K sold the next week. It is impossible to say how well it sold in indie shops because the band’s figures are included but these days it is standard for bands and their labels to sell more than all the 300+ indie shops together. For a label like Domino this applies from the Arctic Monkeys down to an artist like Julia Holter. While her recent album sold 554 on release the indies only coloured vinyl from Domino came with 2 x Polaroid studio session photographs and an exclusive facsimile of Julia’s handwritten liner notes and sold 89 copies in the UK. Indie shops sold 81 of their colured vinyl version.

These are of course UK sales and again labels and bands often sell more abroad of limited editions than they do in the UK depending on the artist’s internatinal profile. This regularly leaves indie shops with a limited edition that yes you can’t get in HMV or from Amazon but one that they have to hope fans don’t realise comes with further extras from the artist or label. Sometimes the indies don’t even get a chance as happened with the recent British Sea Rower 4xCD box set which was only available from the band.

Lesser known bands on big indie labels are selling 200 to 300 so you can imagine where that leaves small bands. There are other factors that also distort sales figures the most obvious being that artists may well achieve reasonable sales in London by doing an in-store but that makes regional sales even lower. All the figures given out are massively distorted by a few artists selling vast quantities and mostly in supermarkets. Most established artists be it James Blunt or the Mary Chain can rely on touring and associated merchandise but how new bands can be promoted to a largely indiferent public is something the music industry doesn’t seem to want to address. 

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