Sorkin goes from White House to the front line

Booming compact disc sales, a comeback by cassettes and the rise of country music and new stars helped U.S. record sales hit an all-time high of approximately $ 9 billion in 1992. The figures were contained in the annual year-end statistics report released yesterday by the Recording Industry Assn. of America.

RIAA president Jay Berman said the holiday season was a key, with sales that “took us well beyond our highest expectations.”

The $ 9 billion volume is based on net shipments after returns of 895.5 million units of records, tapes, compact discs and musicvideos, a total up 11.8% from 1991’s totals. The RIAA Market Research Committee — assisted by accountants KPMG Peat Marwick — compiles industry statistics from figures provided by U.S. record companies.

The 1992 results are surprising, given that the domestic retail community complained for virtually all of 1992 about lagging sales. The record industry has presumably been in a tailspin due to the national recession since late 1990, with mid-year statistics for 1991 reflecting the first drop in net shipments in eight years, according to RIAA statistics.

Since then, a modest recovery has ensued, but the final 1992 statistics blow any notions of recession out of the water.

The Christmas rush was the catalyst for whopping gains in the fourth quarter, which spurred shipments to more than double the midyear 1992 totals, when 402.3 million units reportedly moved out of record company warehouses.

Asked about the posted gains in light of the griping over the last year and a half, RIAA president Berman noted that the industry did 55% of its annual business in the second half of the year, an increase from its usual 52%. He also noted the rise of country music as a sales force.

CD unit sales increased from 333.3 million in 1991 to 407.5 million in 1992, the first time in five years or more that the unit increase topped its previous year’s increase. Compact discs are now the kingpin configuration of the industry.

Cassette sales also rebounded strongly. Off 18% in 1991 from the year before, the unit’s sales rose slightly this year. While not up to the sales standards of years like 1988 or 1989, when cassettes dominated the market, the results have to be encouraging for the industry’s second most popular configuration.

Musicvideos also rose, up 24.5% from last year’s net shipments.

Industry reaction to the numbers was predictably upbeat, with many citing room for extensive growth.

Mike Shalett, chief operating officer of SoundScan, said the stats are particularly exciting because they occurred in a year when the largest-selling albums were by artists virtually unknown a year ago. He cited Billy Ray Cyrus, Garth Brooks, Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Shalett also noted that CD player penetration was still relatively low, particularly in automobiles, and predicted future growth for the industry when more consumers own the hardware. “When you have such high penetration but don’t have great car penetration, you have a lot of people buying in multi-configurations,” he said.

Mike Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, sees a basically solid industry in the statistics.

“I see the signs as pretty healthy right now,” he said. “Some of the labels did a very constructive thing in the past year in terms of trimming their artist rosters, because there was a lot of fat there.”

Greene sees consumer interest in different forms of music growing in the coming years.

“I’m very encouraged by the blurring of some of the lines between the genres, ” he said. “If it continues, we’ll see more people who are accustomed to buying adult contemporary and pop recordings getting more involved in, say, jazz on one side and country on the other.”

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