Oldies still rule the charts

[17 July 2007]

By Jason Gross

While the ongoing gloom/doom of shrinking sales figures haunt the music industry, one ongoing bright spot are the long-life albums which continue to sell thousands of copies each year (which alone would outsell many items on the charts now).  It used to be that Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was the top dog, raking up 100’s of weeks on the charts but other long-term faves as witnessed by this AP article: the New Canon.

Among other things that caught my eye in the article was this:

“U2, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Celine Dion, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Dave Matthews Band and the ever-touring Jimmy Buffett also all continue to sell large amounts of old records.”

But it’s not just Buffett who’s a road dog.  It turns out that all of those acts log extensive time on the concert circuit too.  So how much of a coincidence can that be?  Nowadays, conventional thinking about established artists’ careers is that albums are reminders that they’re still active or provide reasons to be on the road.  But as it turns out, this activity also stirs up interest in back catalog items too (which ain’t admittedly a brand new revelation).  The irony is that except for the big-time bands that negotiated big percentages for their old albums (i.e. U2), this kind of revenue is dwarfed by their concert income.

Dig some of the other releases that do well.  No just OK Computer and Nevermind but also (to a lesser extent)... “U2’s “Joshua Tree,” Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic,” Beck’s “Odelay,” Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang,” the Clash’s “London Calling,” Weezer’s “Weezer,” and the Pixies’ “Doolittle.”

Common factor?  They’re established “classics,” which each new generation of music nuts will be interested to find out about, thus ensuring ongoing sales.  It’s standard vocabulary for past generations that you’d usually be embarrassed to be at least somewhat familiar with and sure enough, most of ‘em still sound fine today (though I admit that I’m not really a Weezer fan).

Lower sales? Well-regarded albums like Joy Division’s “Closer,” the Smiths’ “The Queen is Dead,” My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless,” and R.E.M.‘s “Murmur”  With the exception of the last, these are acts that never broke out big in the States and aren’t as hailed as other albums by these groups (i.e. Unknown Pleasures, Meat is Murder).

It’s also interesting to see that some rap classics aren’t doing bang-up business. “Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” sold 15,000 copies last year; Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique” sold 22,000; and Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell” sold far less than both.”  Rest assured that the Beasties’ debut does much better business as it was a MUCH bigger seller to begin with (which is an important factor) and PE never really was (sad to say) and were soon eclipsed during their heyday by NWA (surely Straight Outta Compton will sell well for years to come).  As for Run-DMC, though they once provided the dividing line from old school, at this point they themselves are old-school plus since they’re not around anymore to tour or promote new records, that’s not going to boost sales of their back catalog.

So what are going to be future long-term sellers?  Factor in what’s sold really well recently along with which acts have toured extensively plus that elusive factor of being an album that sums up a time or mood or movement and you’ve got your list.  Of course by then, music won’t be in MP3 format but emanating from a sub-dermal implant which projects a hologram as you’ll be mistily boring your grandkids about how much you loved your old iPod (and then have to explain to them what that is).

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/oldies-still-rule-the-charts/