Greatest hits stumble amid holi-daze

Repackaging plan leaves biz with little in its Christmas stocking

“The Beatles 1” gave the music industry a great idea back in 2000: Pump the bottom line with hits compilations in the fourth quarter. That recipe for success, however, may be as stale as last year’s fruitcake.

Of the greatest hits albums released after Oct. 1, only a single disc, Eminem’s “Curtain Call,” has topped 1 million in sales, while the top 10 sellers have represented just 4.85 million units sold. That’s a 48% drop from the 9.3 million sold at the end of 2004, a fourth quarter led by three country stars — Shania Twain (2.24 million), Toby Keith (1.9 million) and George Strait (1.88 million).

In 2004, 18 hits compilations released after Oct. 1 made it into the top 100. There were 19 compilations readied in 2005, which had music retailers confident — in November — that the season would perform about as well as the year before. They were wrong.

Whereas 2004 had several steady sellers, ’05 had to sit nervously waiting for the Dec. 6 release of the Eminem compilation that, while it sold well, didn’t come close to posting the numbers his previous full-lengths have.

The savior, to a great extent, was Johnny Cash. A hits compilation from Island and Columbia Legacy, “Legend of Johnny Cash,” posted the late country singer’s best numbers in decades and settled into the top 20 amid contempo stars such as Madonna and Fall Out Boy. Buoyed by the Cash-June Carter biopic “Walk the Line,” the Cash catalogue burned like a ring of fire.

“Legend of Johnny Cash” sold nearly 850,000 between its release on Oct. 25 and Jan. 1. The four-CD version of “The Legend” has sold125,000. And during Christmas week, Cash’s “16 Biggest Hits” sold 52,000, “Essential Johnny Cash” sold 35,000 and “Live at Folsom Prison” sold 22,000 copies.

“Everyone is getting smarter about when to release a hits project,” says Ronn Werre, president of EMI Music Marketing, which has done well recently with Dean Martin and Beach Boys projects, but faltered with a John Lennon compilation last year. “It is too expensive to release anything but superstar records in the fourth quarter, so you need to find better release dates during the year.”

He singled out holidays such as Father’s Day, memorial Day and Valentine’s Day as dates worth circling on the calendar for certain releases. Tim McGraw’s “Greatest Hits Vol. 2” and “Reconsider Me: The Love Songs,” Artemis’ collection of work from the late Warren Zevon, are the first albums targeted for release just before Valentine’s Day 2006.

Another factor is clearly the digital arena wherein fans can create their own greatest hits records long before any label decides they want to hit retail with a compilation.

Labels and online services are reluctant to discuss whether Apple’s iTunes and other similar services cannibalize the greatest hits marketplace. In the case of Destiny’s Child, for example, every song from their catalog was available online prior to Columbia’s release of “#1’s.” And iTunes often organizes an artist’s catalog so that a consumer can navigate the catalog according to their interest level.

That organization and availability certainly limited the sales of “#1’s,” which is well under 1 million units. A collection of ‘N Sync hits released by Jive got no higher than No. 47 after its release on Oct. 25, and was off the top 200 chart by Thanksgiving.

The one compilation that seems to thrive despite the prominent availability of hit songs on Internet sites is the “Now That’s What I call Music” series. Vols. 19 and 20 were still in the top 200 as the year closed; No. 20 had sold 2. 1 million copies in nine stanzas while No. 19 had a cume of 2 million after 25 weeks.

Werre actually had a card up his sleeve when discussing the fate of compilations. EMI was using the last week of the year to launch Ricky Nelson’s “Greatest Hits,” which sold 18,000 copies in its first stanza. Release date was tied to — what else? — death. Nelson died 20 years ago on Dec. 31 in a plane accident.

The Nelson record opened at No. 102 on the Nielsen SoundScan chart, making it his highest-charting debut since “Garden Party” opened at No. 65 in 1972. In the SoundScan era (since 1991), Nelson had never sold more than 2,300 units in a week.

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