If you've been anywhere near a radio in the past four months, you've heard Jesse McCartney's "Leavin'" countless times. The amiable pop tune has sold 1,360,000 downloads, making it the #24 best-selling song of the year. So McCartney's album, Departure, must be a big hit, right?
Not really. Departure has sold 118,000 copies, not enough to put it on Nielsen/SoundScan's running list of the year's top 200 albums.
"Sexy Can I" by Ray J & Yung Berg is an even bigger hit. The slinky R&B smash has sold 1,843,000 downloads, making it the 12th best-selling song of the year. The collaboration is featured on both artists' albums, Ray J's All I Feel and Yung Berg's Look What You Made Me. As of this week, the two albums have sold 157,000 copies. Combined.
Welcome to the modern music business, where even big hits don't necessarily sell large numbers of albums.
Let's try one more. Leona Lewis' elegant and soulful ballad "Bleeding Love" (which Jesse McCartney co-wrote) has sold 3,165,000 downloads, making it the #1 hit of 2008. Surely Lewis' album, Spirit, must be a hit. Indeed it is. The album has sold 1,125,000 copies, fewer than it would have in the record business' glory days, but a solid showing for a new artist.
So what's going on? Is it all about the individual track these days? Is the album becoming a relic of the past? Let's look at the numbers.
Just 11 albums topped the 1 million mark in sales in the first nine months of 2008, the lowest tally at this point in the year since Nielsen/SoundScan took over tracking of record sales for Billboard magazine in 1991. The trend has been downhill since 2006, when 28 albums topped the 1 million mark in the first 39 weeks of the year. The number dropped to 20 in 2007.
It wasn't always this way. Each year from 1994 through 2004, at least 30 albums topped the 1 million sales mark in the first nine months of the year. The best year was 2001, when 59 albums did the trick-more than five times this year's total.
Of course, in 2001, there was no downloading of individual songs. And this year, that counts for a lot. A total of 39 songs sold 1 million or more downloads in the first nine months of this year. In fact, there were as many songs (11) that sold 2 million or more downloads in the first nine months as there were albums that sold 1 million copies (physical and digital combined) in same period.
The top 200 songs for the year-to-date sold a combined total of 152,246,000 downloads in the first nine months. The top 200 albums for the year-to-date sold a combined total of 80,720,000 copies in the same period. As you can see, songs are out front by a margin of nearly two to one.
But keep in mind that all sales are not equal. An album costs about 10 times as much as an individual song, so it's a more considered decision. Downloading a song is more of an impulse purchase, like buying a candy bar or a newspaper. Buying an album is more of a demonstration of commitment to an artist. The 2.5 million people who have bought Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III, the best-selling album so far this year, are probably true fans. The 2.9 million who have downloaded his hit "Lollipop" may have just liked the tune.
And albums are still able to amass big weekly sales numbers, especially in their first week of release. In the history of downloading individual songs, the all-time record for one-week sales was set in the last week of December 2007, when 467,000 fans paid to download "Low" by Flo Rida featuring T-Pain. That's a hefty total, but four albums have exceeded that sales figure in 2008 alone. (Tha Carter III sold more than twice that in its first week.)
Individual songs dominated the music business in the '40s and '50s. Billboard introduced its first national "Best Selling Retail Records" chart devoted to individual songs in July 1940-nearly five years before it added an album chart. (The album chart didn't become a regular weekly feature until March 1956.)
Album sales started to heat up in the late '50s and early '60s with the success of albums by such artists as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Kingston Trio. In April 1961, Billboard expanded the depth of its album chart to 150 titles.
The arrival of The Beatles in 1964, and the popularity of such other hit-makers as the Monkees and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass caused album sales to explode. Multi-million sellers became more commonplace. In May 1967, Billboard expanded its album chart again to its present depth-200 albums.
Albums were the leading configuration throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s. Such albums as Carole King's Tapestry, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and Michael Jackson's Thriller were as broadly popular as any film or TV show of the period. To not be familiar with them would be like not having seen Annie Hall or Seinfeld. You'd be left out of the national cultural conversation.
Album sales hit their peak around the turn of the millennium. The #1 album of the year topped the 7 million mark in sales in seven of the 10 years between 1995 and 2004. (The biggest year-end victor of all was N Sync's No Strings Attached, which sold 9,936,000 copies in 2000.)
But album sales have taken a beating in the last four years. The sales tally of the year's #1 album has declined every year since 2004. Two years ago marked the first year since at least 1992 that no album topped the 4 million mark in sales during the year. The soundtrack to the Disney Channel's High School Musical took the year-end title for 2006 with sales of 3,719,000. The best-selling album of 2007, Josh Groban's Noel, sold even fewer copies during the year (3,699,000). Unless something comes out of nowhere in the final quarter of this year (as Noel did last year), this year's champ will probably fail to equal Groban's total.
Tha Carter III has sold 2,489,000 copies in 16 weeks. No Strings Attached, released in March 2000 when sales were at their dizzying peak, sold nearly that many copies (2,416,000) in its first week.
There is one bright spot: Paid downloads of albums are starting to catch on. Coldplay's Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends has sold 548,000 digital copies. But while that's a healthy total, it's just one-eighth of the tally (4,302,000) of the all-time best-selling digital song, "Low." The five songs with the most paid downloads have sold a combined total of 18,354,000 copies. That's more than the combined total (17,207,000) of the top 100 albums with the most paid downloads. The digital area holds promise, but it's not yet remotely strong enough to offset the decline in physical album sales.
Let's take a closer look at these two year-to-date lists-albums with the most total sales and songs with the most paid downloads. Six artists are in the top 20 on both lists: Lil Wayne (#1 album, #2 song), Coldplay (#2 album, #6 song), Leona Lewis (#7 album, #1 song), Usher (#9 album, #9 song), Miley Cyrus (#14 album, #16 song) and Rihanna (#15 album, three songs in the top 20 at #11, #13 and #15).
While there's a high degree of overlap between the two lists, there are also some striking differences. Five of the year's top 20 albums have no representation on the list of 200 songs with the most paid downloads. These are Jack Johnson's Sleep Through The Static, Kid Rock's Rock N Roll Jesus, Metallica's Death Magnetic and the soundtracks to Mamma Mia! and Juno. (In the case of Rock N Roll Jesus, the reason is simply that Kid Rock elected not to make any tracks available digitally.)
Likewise, three of the top 20 most downloaded songs since Jan. 1 are drawn from albums that aren't listed among the top 100 best-sellers for the year to date. These hit songs that haven't moved great numbers of albums are "Sexy Can I" by Ray J & Yung Berg (#12; neither artist's album is in the top 200), Metro Station's "Shake It" (#18; the album is #133) and M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" (#19; the album is #160).
So, let's settle this, what's more important these days-the album or the song? The numbers don't lie. Music fans are consuming far more songs than albums. But I'd still rather be Lil Wayne or Coldplay than Metro Station or Ray J. I think their greater album sales make them far better bets to still be in the forefront five or 10 from now. It's a matter of degree of commitment to an artist. If you buy an album, you're invested in that artist-literally and figuratively.
One look at this week's chart shows that albums aren't dead yet. Metallica's Death Magnetic has sold a most healthy 959,000 copies in just three weeks. And rapper T.I.'s new album, Paper Trail, is expected to debut next week with sales in the range of 550,000. These tallies are far too strong to arrive at a conclusion that albums have run their course. It's possible that albums will remain a viable niche product for years to come, even though their days as a high-volume, mass-market product may be numbered.
While we're three-quarters of the way through 2008, there's still time for some big sellers to emerge. Let's hope they do.
(Thanks to Jon Konjoyan of JK Promotion in Los Angeles for an observation that led to this column.)