Tuesday, January 22. 2008
In the Jan. 21, 2008, New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones offers this note on the record industry:
One little factoid that I read some years back is that Christmas albums outsell jazz albums. I don't have the data to back this up, but if you throw out pop jazz and vocals, it seems possible that last year there were no more than 2000 jazz albums released and on average they sold fewer than 2000 copies each. Multiply that out and you get less than 4 million, about what one Christmas title sold. Actually, I doubt that as many as 500 new jazz titles sell 2000 copies in their first year. When I surveyed several labels a couple years ago, several larger independents like Palmetto and Sunnyside indicated that 20000 copies was about their top limit. The Balkanization Frere-Jones talks about makes it all the harder for a real jazz record to break out of this ghetto.
The more generally striking thing is that 3.7 million copies seems historically very low for the year's best-selling album. Past years have been led by giants topping 10 million, sometimes several. Groban's way more than 15% off the pace there. While that may be part of the Balkanization trend, there's also a lot of volatility at the top, and it may just be a bad break. The majors seem to be especially dependent on a handful of giant albums each year. If they're suddenly hard to find or make and break, their whole business model falls apart. When that sort of thing happens businessfolk tend to go crazy, which may have something to do with such bizarre behavior as suing ordinary customers for downloading and copying music. It's a lot of fun working in a business that's growing like gangbusters and making money hand over foot. You get to where you think that's normal, and expect it to happen forever, so it's all the more shocking when any sort of restructuring or retrenchment occurs. It looks like something like that is happening in recorded music lately. Beyond that, I haven't done the research, and don't have a lot of opinion. I just try to listen to as much as I can, and note what I find most appealing and/or interesting. But I've started thinking about a new column superseding Recycled Goods, and it would likely start to take a look at the business end -- not least because rather big and disturbing things are happening in business these days. There may be a lot more retrenchment in the near future.