Already rebounding, the biz is banking on the holiday season

The music industry is ready for its annual fourth-quarter dash, hoping to not only sustain the 5% growth the biz is seeing over last year’s levels, but to push it closer toward double digits.

November is once again the month of superstars in the music business, the month when diskeries hope casual fans pour into stores to buy presents and get a little something for themselves as well.

The list of releases capable of selling more than a million or two in a few weeks is staggering.

New albums are arriving before mid-December from more than 15 acts that have posted million-selling discs in the recent past. Greatest-hits albums are coming in from Britney Spears, Shania Twain, the Bee Gees, Neil Young, Pearl Jam, the Bad Boy label and Travis, complemented by boxed sets from the Beatles, Bon Jovi and Nirvana. The Rolling Stones, Josh Groban and Simon & Garfunkel are going the live-album route during the gift-giving season; Clay Aiken and Jessica Simpson are spreading the holiday cheer with Christmas albums. Besides Aiken, former “AI” finalists hitting the bins with new product this season are Fantasia Barrino, Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard and Diana DeGarmo.

And within the enormous clutch of vets, a handful of new artists has been ID’d as capable of breaking through with debut releases: Bobby Cheeks, the Network and John Legend.

The month opened with the Jay-Z/R. Kelly collaboration “Unfinished Business” (IDJ/ZLG) selling more than 250,000 to top the charts. The duo’s tour, however, was falling apart as the album was released, though history isn’t on the side of any album not deemed “brand new” at holiday time.

Last year’s results for the week ended Nov. 9 saw eight first-weekers in the top 14; by the end of the month, 16 of the top 20 titles were released in November. The first week of December, only three titles debuted in the top 200.

The top 10 represented sales of 17.74 million between Nov. 11, 2003, and Dec. 28, 2003. In the final full week of holiday shopping, Dec. 15-21, 14 titles sold more than 199,000.

Universal Music stands to make the biggest impact with the fewest number of releases. The distrib’s Interscope label will release “Encore” by Eminem on Nov. 16 and U2’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” a week later. Both have been heavily promoted — Eminem via a Michael Jackson-mocking video and U2 via its association with Apple’s iPod player — and could top 1 million units in sales in their first week of release. Only two albums have topped 1 million in their first week this year: Usher’s “Confessions” and Norah Jones’ “Feels Like Home.”

Twain and Spears will battle to become next week’s champion. Eminem expects to own the Nov. 16-21 sales stanza, with Destiny’s Child’s “Destiny Fulfilled,” on Sony BMG’s Columbia label, taking second.

U2’s competish includes the first solo album from No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, “Love, Angel, Music”; the debut of last season’s “AI” champ, Fantasia Barrino’s “Free Yourself”; and rapper Ludacris’ “Red Light District.” The contender from left field is the pop-bluegrass act Alison Krauss and Union Station, whose last album has sold nearly 1 million copies.

Last year was the first time the announcement of the Grammy nominations occurred during the holiday shopping season. Evanescence was about the only act that saw an uncommonly large bump following the noms. Grammy noms will be announced Dec. 6.

Naturally, this annual flood of releases has its detractors who insist the music business has to invent another sales period. Record-sales spike after awards shows and around Valentine’s Day, graduations and Mother’s and Father’s Days.

“The movie industry invented the summer blockbuster,” the head of one major label group says. “We still need to come up with another selling season outside of the fourth quarter.”

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