Albums limp as downloads rule

When 2005 comes to its conclusion, the music industry will point proudly to stunning increases posted in the download marketplace. But the sale of full albums will likely be down 10%.

As of last week, Nielsen SoundScan had recorded sales of 285.8 million single-track downloads this year compared with 110.7 million in 2004. Downloads of full albums count in the overall albums tally, which is currently down 7% — 479.3 million vs. 515.8 million.

The fourth quarter, however, appears to be lacking in the blockbuster releases that dominate the holiday sales season. Early reports indicate that Madonna’s “Confessions on the Dance Floor” will take the top spot, with sales approaching 350,000. The debut from the most recent “American Idol” winner, Carrie Underwood, is also expected to top the 300,000 mark. First-week sales of the repackaged edition of Mariah Carey’s “The Emancipation of Mimi,” one of the year’s steadiest sellers, will land in the top five, too.

But the upper reaches of the chart continue to see erosion in sales that should have the industry recalibrating how a blockbuster is measured.

Last year, in the final two months, six albums topped the 400,000 sold mark. But when country star Kenny Chesney sold 469,000 copies of his new disc last week, it was the highest debut in more than two months, and come year’s end, he may have only one companion in his class, the greatest-hits disc from Eminem, set for release Dec. 6.

Albums that could do OK numbers include the just-released System of a Down disc, Shakira’s English-language disc coming out Tuesday and the Dec. 6 releases from Korn and Ja Rule’s best of.

This end-of-the-year sag makes that dramatic increase in the number of downloads sold all the more important: If the singles were converted into albums of 12 tracks each, this year’s dip could be as small as 3%.

An indication that the Internet has gained on bricks-and-mortar stores is found in the list of top 10 retailers from the third quarter. Apple’s iTunes has climbed to No. 7 on the list after being ranked 14th; Wal-Mart and Best Buy remain Nos. 1 and 2.

Realizing that the marketing of an album in the fourth quarter can be prohibitively expensive for all but the releases from high-profile artists, major labels bulked up on the September release schedule. Strategy had a quick payoff, as 53 albums debuted in the top 50 in September compared with 45 albums in 2004. First-week sales of those discs amounted to 5.01 million in ’05 vs. 3.82 million a year earlier, a 24% increase.

Few of those releases have had legs: Only three remain in the top 50.

In 2003, the fourth quarter salvaged the record industry, but last year’s final stretch trimmed the year’s healthy lead — about 8% — to nil.

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