Back in the Stone Age—when record companies actually expected to sell millions of albums—they used to make it difficult for fans to buy just a piddling single.
They’d refuse to release the song everyone heard and loved from the radio so they could force fans to shell out for the entire CD.
The age of iTunes killed that scheme once and for all. But never have the consequences of the change been more obvious than now.
Several of the hottest songs in the country—the types that at one time might have piqued the interest of listeners to dive into an artist’s full work—have sold so resoundingly as ringtones and digital downloads, that CD sales for those acts have suffered irrefutably.
Hits by MIMS, Huey, and the Shop Boyz have dominated the late-spring/early-summer pop scene. According to Nielsen/RingScan, MIMS inspired more than 2 million ringtone purchases of his cut “This Is Why I’m Hot.” By Nielsen/SoundScan’s measure, the song earned no fewer than 1.4 million digital downloads. Yet, after 16 long weeks on the market, MIMS’ full CD, “Music Is My Savior,” has sold only 257,637 copies, around one-10th of his ringtone figure.
A similar scenario dogs Huey. His “Pop, Lock and Drop” ditty made 1.2 million phones vibrate. Likewise, the song has been downloaded over 809,000 times. But the full album, “Notebook Paper,” has dropped to No. 89 in just three weeks on Billboard’s Top 200 chart. It has barely moved 50,000 copies so far.
The Shop Boyz have likewise ruled the ringtone list, with 1.1 million jingles banked. Add nearly 1 million downloads to that tally for the song “Party Like a Rock Star.” But the Boyz’ CD, “Rockstar Mentality,” vanished from Billboard’s top 25 in just three weeks with sales plummeting between 30 percent and 40 percent per week.
Some would argue that these particular artists got what they deserve. They’re all novelty acts who, at any time, should have an expected shelf life shorter than Kajagoogoo’s.
Yet these are the kinds of acts getting a major push from record companies these days. Which only encourages more such fluff in the future. The current record company mentality goes something like this: “Since hardly anyone is selling full albums anyway, let’s just try to make money any way we can, as fast as we can, then move on to the next fly-by-night `star.’ Artist development be damned.”
While such attitudes have a long history in the music biz, the current panic over CD sales has made it significantly worse. As a result, the artists they push keep getting less talented.
Then again, not all ringtone champs have seen their CD sales cannibalized. The hard rock band Buckcherry inspired 1.1 million fans to purchase the ringtone to their charming song “Crazy Bitch.” Some 740,000 downloaded the ditty. At the same time, Buckcheery’s CD, “15,” has sold nearly the same number: 779,437.
That’s nice for them. But to sell that number of albums in the current depressed climate, it took no fewer than 66 weeks. Amid today’s jittery, “action-now” record companies, how many will wait that long for a payoff in the future?