Plunging record revenues have the music industry grappling with culprits from piracy and overpriced CDs to fickle tastes, shorter attention spans and a dearth of hot trends. All play some role in a stubborn downward spiral that began three years ago after a decade of robust growth. Sales, currently down 8.3% from a year ago, show no signs of bouncing back anytime soon, leaving labels in a quandary over which artists and audiences to target.
Clues emerge in Nielsen SoundScan's breakdown of album sales by genre. SoundScan, which began tabulating sales in 1991, detects hot and cold pockets of music by tracking specific genres. It's an inexact science, with some titles falling into more than one pigeonhole and multitudes of artists not fitting any, since the unmanageably broad category of pop isn't classified.
Nonetheless, the sorting yields some answers about the health or debility of specific types of music. No other genre matches the dramatic growth of hard rock, ahead of 2002 by 232% so far, but the modest ups and downs in other areas suggest growing consumer indifference and a lack of sonic lightning rods.
Four formerly thriving camps are flagging: rap (down 6.3%), country (7%), alternative rock (7%) and R&B (11%).
The sag in rap is surprising, considering 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' is on track to be the year's top-selling album.
"Even though hip-hop is down, when you look at the best-selling albums this year, it's clearly still a significant category," says Geoff Mayfield, Billboard's director of charts.
Likewise for R&B, which is slowing despite massive sellers by Beyoncé, Ashanti, R. Kelly and others.
"Even though a few are doing well, there may be many others that (flopped) and are weighing down the category," Mayfield says. "Again, when you look at the key sellers in the top 20, R&B is very important."
Country's dip may have less to do with weak 2003 product than with unusually brisk sales logged early last year, when albums by Alan Jackson and Kenny Chesney were flying out of stores.
"Country had a banner year in 2002, with a very strong first half," Mayfield says. "It was one of the few genres that grew. That's hard to compete with."
The 21% surge in jazz sales can be explained in two words: Norah Jones.
The 24% slide in New Age can be summed in one: Enya.
Jones' Grammy-sweeping Come Away With Me accounts for about 3.6 million of the 12 million jazz units sold so far this year. The album, released in early 2002, didn't hit No. 1 in Billboard until January, when it reached total sales of 2.9 million. Without the jazz-pop singer's spillover bounty in 2003, jazz sales would be stuck at 8.4 million, trailing 2002's midpoint by 15%.
Enya's A Day Without Rain, a 2001 release that became a post-9/11 balm, was still riding the top 10 in early 2002, boosting the New Age tally to peak levels that the current stable of lesser powers can't catch. The same is true for gospel, which is down 20% from the first half of 2002, when Kirk Franklin was driving the genre.
No single title in fall's release schedule holds promise for the industry's long-hoped turnaround. But maybe there's still time for Enya, Norah Jones and 50 Cent to collaborate on a Christmas album.
(By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY)