Music's niche business sees sluggish slide

The music industry is starting to lose its long tail.

One of recorded music’s most notoriously slow sales weeks of the year saw little change as Taylor Swift’s “Fearless” held on to the No. 1 slot. But a sign of the further weakening of the business arrived in the tallies registered by current releases between Nos. 51 and 200: No title sold more than 10,000 copies and the bottom of the chart now extends to albums selling as few as 2,400 copies.

In just three years, the number of albums selling more than 10,000 copies has been cut in half. And the number of units being sold by the albums between Nos. 51 and 200 has seen a similar dip.

In 2006, the bottom 150 went from 20,000 units sold down to 5,800. On that chart, though, 110 albums sold more than 10,000 copies and the album at No. 111, Pitbull’s “Money Is More Than a Major Issue,” missed the cut by just 23 sales. Nearly identical numbers were posted in 2005: 113 discs topped 10,000 sold; Nos. 51-200 ranged from 20,000 down to 5,000.

Five years ago, Nos. 51 through 200 saw sales of 21,000 down to 5,800 with 126 albums selling more than 10,000.

The Long Tail Theory contends that culture and economy have shifted away from a small number of hits and toward a huge number of niches. The problem now is one of scale as those niches continue to dwindle.

About the only place where the long tail holds true is at the top of the catalog chart where Abba’s “Gold” sold 10,000 copies last week and Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Legend” moved 7,000.

The last time the second week of January had an album reach six figures was 2003 when Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” sold 108,000 copies. That disc was on the rise, though, as it its cume at the time was 2.9 million; it sold another 5 million copies by year’s end. For the record, that year’s 51-200 rolled from 18,500 to 5,000, with the 10,000 barrier set at No. 103.

A year ago, in the week ended Jan. 13, the 51-200 range went from the 12,000 sold by “Jordin Sparks” to 3,000 moved by Killswitch Engage’s “As Daylight Dies.” The top-rated disc that failed to cross the 10,000 mark was Buckcherry’s “15″ at No. 65, which registered sales of 9,900. A year earlier, the 51-200 range was 14,600 to 3,700, the 10,000 sold barrier sitting at No. 76 (Mos Def’s “Tru3 Magic” sold 9,900 at No. 77).

This year, total sales were down nearly 14% from the same week in 2008.

The only debuts were two compilations and the only significant chart movement belonged to Lady GaGa, whose “Fame” rose 12 slots to No. 14 the same week her “Just Dance” became the nation’s No. 1 single.

“Fearless” has now logged six weeks at the top, selling 72,000 copies in the week ended Sunday, according to Nielsen SoundScan data. It is the first time in almost four years that an album posted that many weeks at No. 1. The album’s cume is at 2.27 million. 

The top nine titles did some minor reshuffling despite none of them posting sales increases. Nickelback’s “Dark Horse” moved up three to No. 2 on sales of 53,000 units, and Beyonce’s “I Am … Sasha Fierce” slid down two to No. 4 on sales of 49,000. Akon’s “Freedom” moved up one to No. 10, selling 27,000 copies.

“Total Club Hits Vol. 2,” a Thrive release featuring remixes of hip-hop tracks, sold 20,000 copies to get its initial footing at No. 16. “Ultra Dance 10,” which includes remixes of pop and hip-hop numbers, shuffled off with 12,000 to slide in at No. 41.

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