Recorded music industry bids for rebound

The recorded music biz traditionally treats September the way movie studios do November and December, issuing high-profile releases that can win awards, polls and land in critical top 10s. But while plenty of Grammy hopefuls are on release schedules, the diskeries are also bulking up on potential blockbusters.

As the industry attempts to make up a 14% dip in album sales vs. last year, Sept. 11 and 25 will see major square-offs for rappers, rockers and last year’s biggest-selling group. September may be recovery time for the biz before the fourth quarter starts.

The 11th features albums from 50 Cent (“Curtis”) and Kanye West (“Graduation”), whose last discs saw debut sales weeks of 1.1 million and 860,000, respectively. While they’re butting heads, however, it could be country singer Kenny Chesney’s “Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates” that wins the week.

Chesney’s last album, 2005’s “The Road and the Radio,” sold 469,000 in its opening sesh, and the BNA recording artist has seen his star rise considerably in the years since, especially on the concert front.

Concurrently, country music has experienced a solid rise in the last 18 months, while rap music has been plagued by piracy and indifference: Formerly piping hot hip-hop artists have cooled considerably. And while West has expanded his following among mainstream listeners and with alternative rock audiences, 50 Cent’s cachet has slipped; it will be no surprise if the real fight is between Chesney and West with numbers in the vicinity of 600,000.

The following week eases up but does sport a few top 10 contenders: KT Tunstall’s “Drastic Fantastic” and James Blunt’s “All the Lost Souls,” plus two albums of ’70s covers — Babyface’s “Playlist” and “The Greatest Songs of the Seventies” by Barry Manilow.

Rascal Flatts, whose “Me and My Gang” had the biggest sales of 2006 — 722,000 — return to stores on the 25th with “Still Feels Good.” Disc, which has the potential to top 1 million in first-week sales, should lead a class of rookies that includes the Foo Fighters’ “Echoes Silence Patience & Grace,” Melissa Etheridge’s “The Awakening” and “Italia,” by Chris Botti.

Among the dressed-for-kudos success on the late September docket are the all-Beatles-interpretations soundtrack to “Across the Universe”; Joni Mitchell’s “Shine”; “Kill to Get Crimson,” by Mark Knopfler; Seal’s “System”; Queen Latifah’s “Trav’lin’ Light”; PJ Harvey’s “White Chalk”; “River: The Joni Letters,” by Herbie Hancock; and the boxed sets “People Take Warning!: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938″ and “The Complete on the Corner Sessions,” by Miles Davis.

The 25th will also see releases from critical faves Debbie Harry, Steve Earle, Nellie McKay, Iron & Wine, Devendra Banhart, Jose Gonzalez and Bettye LaVette.

September 2006 saw a mix of Grammy contenders and discs by name acts with the potential to sell well through the holiday season. Three September releases performed extraordinarily — Beyonce’s “B’Day,” Justin Timberlake’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds” and Fergie’s “Dutchess” — while a pair notably flopped: Janet Jackson “20 Y.O.” and Clay Aiken’s “Thousand Different Ways.”

Albums from two veteran acts, Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Last Man Standing” and Tony Bennett’s “Duets: American Classic,” were given strategic releases, though Grammy love did not follow. A similar fate beset Bob Seger’s “Face the Promise,” Lionel Richie’s “Coming Home” and Elton John’s “Captain & the Kid.”

Sept. 12 was the release date for TV on the Radio’s “Return to Cookie Mountain,” an album that dominated critical lists and polls as the year’s finest.

While this year’s sales week that includes Labor Day is unlikely to generate a 100,000-unit seller beyond “High School Musical 2,” the industry is hoping to better the September sales tally of the last two years, about 39 million. Timberlake has last year’s September best opening, 684,000, followed by Beyonce’s debut week of 541,000. (Reflecting the sales slump in microcosm, Timberlake’s album is still in the top 40 a year later although it has sold fewer than 3 million copies since that first week).

In reality, though, the sorts of artists now in the September fray have the potential to drive the singles market, especially with kids back in school. The year has already seen a 48% rise in the sale of single downloads this year: 538.4 million through the first eight months vs. 365 million at the same time last year.

For some artists — Bruce Springsteen, Annie Lennox and Matchbox Twenty among them — their singles are being released outside of the sales quarter in which their albums hit stores. Those three, plus John Fogerty and Merle Haggard, have albums being released Oct. 2.

Springsteen’s album will be released on vinyl on Sept. 25, making it the one in the bunch that will be eligible for this year’s Grammy Awards.

With the Grammys to be handed out more than four months after the deadline, many industryites believe that a record or a song has a better chance of winning if it is in the top 40 or on the radio while ballots are in voters’ hands. (That logic went out the window last year when the Dixie Chicks won big.)

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