Taylor Swift's 'Speak Now' kicks off season

The music biz’s fourth quarter will hit warp speed in the next few weeks, as major new titles for the holiday season will be released in an attempt to prop up a year that has seen a precipitous drop in album sales.

Traditionally, labels roll out their heaviest artillery just before the Christmas shopping season, and music merchants are hoping that 2010’s yuletide slate will offset worrisome figures for the year’s first nine months.

Through the end of the third quarter this year, CD sales were down 21% year-to-year, according to David Bakula, senior VP of analytics at Nielsen SoundScan.

Bakula noted that the figure is somewhat deceptive: Last year’s unprecedented run on the late Michael Jackson’s albums skew the 2010 numbers dramatically. About 5 million Jackson units were sold through the end of the third quarter of 2009; Bakula said that in the absence of similar sales, this year’s third quarter was “a disaster” on paper.

However, even subtracting the Jackson spike, year-to-date CD sales would be down 15%.

Retailers are entering the holidays on the heels of some of the most meager sales numbers ever. Earlier this month, Toby Keith’s “Bullets in the Gun” entered the U.S. album chart at No. 1 with 71,000 copies sold — the lowest figure ever for a chart-topping debut. In May, Justin Bieber’s “My World 2.0″ ascended to the apex with 60,000 copies shifted, the smallest number for a No. 1 album.

It remains to be seen if this quarter will produce retail hits on the order of last year’s late-breaking smashes, Susan Boyle’s “I Dreamed a Dream” (3.1 million sold) and Andrea Bocelli’s “My Christmas” (2.2 million sold), both of which appealed to older consumers. “That’s what really propped (business) up,” Bakula said. “In the fourth quarter, you’re talking to a much different demographic.”

Bakula believes the pending fourth-quarter schedule will supply a much-needed holiday sales lift. “On a title-by-title basis,” he said, “we’re in a pretty good place this year.”

The holiday music season kicked off in earnest Monday, Oct. 25, with the release of Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now,” the sequel to the country-pop star’s Grammy-winning 2008 album “Fearless,” which has sold more than 6 million copies to date.

On the basis of early traffic this week, some observers are predicting that Swift’s album could sell 800,000-1 million copies its first week out. No title has moved more than 1 million in a week since Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III” pulled off that feat in 2008.

However, Swift’s latest is unlikely to be a boon for specialty music retailers, which are facing stiff price competition. “Speak Now” is being lowballed by online merchants like Amazon.com, which has priced the title at $8.

Mass merchant Target, which is offering the set at the same price, is also issuing an exclusive version with three additional tracks, three remixes and a bonus video disc, priced at $16.99 online. (Keith Urban’s “Get Closer” will also be sold in an exclusive, expanded package at Target.)

Nov. 2 will bring new titles from Neil Diamond, Jason Aldean and Pitbull. Nov. 9 will see the release of a Christmas album by Boyle, plus fresh albums by Reba McEntire, Kid Cudi and Cee Lo Green.

Nov. 16 promises sets by Josh Groban, Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts and Rihanna, with Kid Rock’s new collection dropping a day earlier. On Nov. 22 — the Monday before retail’s annual post-Thanksgiving “Black Friday” — the latest from Kanye West and Ne-Yo, Nicki Minaj’s much-anticipated solo debut and an EP by Ke$ha all arrive. A new Black Eyed Peas album reaches stores Nov. 30.

Catalog packages aimed at upper-demo consumers include an expanded edition of Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Band on the Run” (Nov. 2) and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story” and Jimi Hendrix’s “West Coast Seattle Boy” (both Nov. 16). Boxed sets from Bob Dylan and John Lennon and a 17-disc Apple Records retrospective have already dropped.

While none of the retailers queried by Daily Variety was aglow about their Christmas possibilities, all said that this year’s holiday slate is strong enough to draw good crowds to their stores.

Carl Mello, director of purchasing at the 29-store, Boston-based Newbury Comics chain, said of the year’s pre-holiday release lineup, “It looks decent compared to last year,” he said. “It’s not a huge dropoff for us.”

Mello has high hopes for the West set and Kings of Leon’s already released “Come Around Sundown,” and added, “The Taylor Swifts and the Susan Boyles do better for us than people would think.” He also cited the Dylan and Springsteen boxes as traffic magnets for Newbury’s clientele.

Eric Levin, owner of Atlanta indie store Criminal Records and head of 24-store coalition the Alliance of Independent Media Stores, said his constituency isn’t focusing on the new Swift and Boyle releases.

“The well has been poisoned for specialty retailers with this kind of product,” Levin said. “A Taylor Swift record does not matter — the (big boxes’ discounted) pricing has removed it from the equation.”

Instead, Levin spoke of the potential for indie-oriented new titles from Elvis Costello, Belle and Sebastian, Brian Eno and Badly Drawn Boy. He also said Nov. 26’s “Back to Black Friday” promotion by Record Store Day organizers, featuring a large selection of exclusive vinyl product from acts like U2 and Springsteen, should stoke indie store traffic.

“We’re going to have an OK Christmas,” Levin said.

Karen Pearson, co-owner of California’s three Amoeba Music stores, said her deep-catalog business would not be determined by big titles like Swift’s, especially since the chain can’t compete with deep discounting.

“It’s not going to be the thing that saves us,” Pearson said.

She said Amoeba has already seen sales on Kings of Leon, reissues like the Dylan mono boxed set and indie-driven entries like South African rap unit Die Antwoord. She added, “I’m thinking vinyl is going to be huge, and buying turntables.”

While Pearson doesn’t see any one factor that will lift Amoeba’s sales, she was upbeat about this year’s seasonal potential.

“There’s enough good, interesting stuff that people will come to the record store,” she said. “The industry is so confused right now, but it’s been proved that if you put records out, people will buy them. I’m hopeful about Christmas.”

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