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With all the talk of dwindling album sales and legitimate kvetching about technology’s transformation of the music space, there have been some benefits. The pool of pop stars has broadened significantly thanks to YouTube. Mixtapes have democratized hip-hop, ushering in a generation of more distinct, idiosyncratic personalities than last gen’s trap star-du-jour. And long-established acts are attracting younger fans as streaming sites provide access to an entire library with a click.
So why, then, are catalog sales down nine percent so far in 2013? Billboard‘s Ed Christman posits that a slow release schedule in addition to decreased demand for the affordable $5 album means the price point is no longer profitable and that major labels have “exhausted” their libraries at big box stores.
Indeed, with the shift to a la carte song selection — and single sales increasingly giving way to streaming — albums as whole entities are suffering, no doubt, but the statistics don’t tell the whole story, particularly if the artist maintains a current presence.
Take David Bowie, for example. When he released his first single in ten years, “Where Are We Now,” back in January, his album The Best of Bowie shot to No. 5 in the iTunes charts. Other crucial Bowie classics like Hunky Dory and Alladin Sane saw similar spikes in the wake of the March release of Bowie album The Next Day. In 2011 and 2012, Bowie was good for an annual tally of 150,000 units, according to data from Nielsen SoundScan. So far in 2013, he’s sold 274,000 which include 172,000 copies of The Next Day and more than 100,000 of catalog releases, already outpacing his previous averages.
An artist who’s been around for a couple decades provides more points-of-access (past work, film and TV appearances, commercial placements and synchs, etc.) than the latest pop tart. But most importantly, they’ve cultivated fandom likely to consistently spend significantly more than 99 cents on their music.
In fact, you could argue that thanks to digital availability and streaming sites, enduring artists with broad back catalogs have seen resurgent interest in older albums that in the past might have languished out-of-print or without retail distribution. With a lifetime of music at consumers’ finger tips, the past is just as salient as the present for many music enthusiasts and equally available. That means fans might come for Daryl Hall’s “Maneater” only to leave in love with the funky “Beanie G. and the Rose Tattoo” or Abandoned Luncheonette’s torch-jazz title track.
“It’s changed completely over the past then years, and maybe less than that, where people are aware of our bigger body of work,” says the famed blue-eyed soul singer and host of internet sensation, Live From Daryl Hall’s House. “People sort of identify us with things like ‘Private Eyes,’ but the audiences also increasingly seem to identify with our earlier stuff.”
It’s a curious case of old versus older. While music aimed at the lowest common denominator, like network television, is staring at slow, steady decline in an era of the long tail, legacy artists forced to tour by declining album sales are attracting younger audience members. And without radio guiding the way, many have gone behind the namesake hits and discovered deeper cuts to champion.
“We got that good stuff and they’re getting it, the young kids,” says Texas country icon Billy Joe Shaver. “I got audiences that are young and old and middle aged, but mostly young really, and these songs are so old.”
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