Biz has something to sing about

Sales scale up in the year's first half

The domestic music business is starting to hum a happy tune. Sales of recordings are up about 7% from last year’s midway point, and digital downloads are on track to break 100 million songs sold this year.

The year has been driven by a handful of mega-sellers, most notably Usher’s “Confessions” which has sold 4.45 million copies for BMG’s LaFace, and Norah Jones’ sophomore EMI/Blue Note disc “Feels Like Home,” which has logged sales of 3.1 million.

Only eight other albums had first-week sales of more than a quarter-million and only a handful of acts have managed to avoid the precipitous fall — about 50% — that hits most acts during their sophomore sales session.

But this is summer, which has customarily been more a time to boost fresh faces on tour than a season to fatten coffers — and the news is good.

At the 26-week mark, U.S. recorded music sales hit 306million units, a rise from last year’s sales of 286 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Compact discs represented 98% of the sales, with the rest coming from cassettes, LPs and DVDs.

Paid digital downloads, which have been tracked for only a year, have seen considerable growth. In the first six months, 53.8 million tracks were downloaded; the first period tracked, June through December 2003, saw a total of 19.2 million.

And Jones’ album, released during a Valentine’s Day week in February, helped drive the biggest sales week in the 13 years since SoundScan started keeping track of album sales.

The question now is: In an atmosphere of piracy, Sony and BMG’s likely merger and Warner Music adjusting to its new structure, can they all keep it up?

Certainly selling CDs during the holiday season is no different than vending ice cream on the Jersey shore — you get three months to make 80% of your money. The fourth quarters in 2002 and 2003 were the saving grace of the record business, keeping total disaster at bay.

Summer has traditionally been used to elevate profiles of burgeoning acts, ones that are in opening slots on major tours (Big & Rich with Tim McGraw) or appearing in package shows such as Ozzfest (Epic’s Lamb of God, Capitol’s Otep and Victory’s Atreyu this year). Last summer saw the successful launch of albums by Beyonce, Michelle Branch, Liz Phair, Black Eyed Peas, Dashboard Confessional and Hilary Duff.

Universal, which is dominating the Brit charts with Scissor Sisters, Razorlight and Keane, acts that have not caught on beyond sporadic radio airplay in the U.S., tries out the summer-sprouting formula July 20 with the release of “Autobiography” from Jessica Simpson’s sister Ashlee Simpson. U’s A&M also has a highly anticipated title due from Vanessa Carlton.

EMI’s Capitol, for example, has eight young acts on its release schedule through Sept. 21. Sister label Virgin is hoping the good notices the Thrills received on their debut will spike sales for their second album, “Let’s Bottle Bohemia” (due out Sept. 14).

Sparta, which grew out of the breakup of At the Drive-in and saw so-so results while on DreamWorks, releases “Porcelain” on U’s Geffen imprint July 13.

Universal’s Interscope has “Straight Outta Cashville,” the third solo album from a member of G-Unit, Young Buck, slated for July 27 and is working mainstream rock with Chronic Future’s “Lines in My Face.”

Sony is banking on big street buzz for the mid-August debut from singer Lyfe, who has named his album “268-192” after his number in prison. Label is also setting up veteran rapper Nas’ next release, on which Lyfe sings, via the release of single “Thief’s Theme” next month.

Atlantic-distribbed Lava drops the debut from Cherie on Aug. 3. French thrush will be featured in Dell’s national ad campaign in the fall.

Wind-up will see if there is an audience for Creed without singer Scott Stem. The other three members have joined forces with Myles Kennedy (ex-Mayfield Four) to form Alter Bridge. Their debut comes out Aug. 10, same day as the sophomore disc from labelmates 12 Stones.

A couple of comeback shots are slated for late summer: Universal Music Enterprises is releasing the first Tears for Fears album in 15 years in late summer, and Sony has a single from Duran Duran targeted for late August-early September. And Columbia will release Cake’s first album in more than three years.

Discs with superstar potential are not yet on release schedules, many of which remain in state of flux over the next several months.

Alan Jackson’s next Arista Nashville disc is penciled in for September, while the debut album from current “American Idol” champ Fantasia Barrino arrives in November or December, a month or two after Clay Aiken’s Christmas album and Ruben Studdard’s gospel album.

BMG’s RCA is looking to Jimmy Buffett’s “License to Chill” (July 13), and on the pop side has albums waiting to be scheduled from Santana, Aretha Franklin, Babyface and Kenny G.

Chingy’s followup to last year’s 2-million selling “Jackpot” is due Sept. 28 from Capitol.

Warner Music, via Atlantic and Warner Bros. Records, expects to hit holiday bins with releases from Green Day, Jason Mraz, the Donnas and the solo debut from matchbox twenty’s Rob Thomas.

Live albums are due from Tim McGraw (“Live Like You Were Dying” on Aug. 24 from Curb), Rod Stewart (“Great American Songbook Tour” on J, Oct. 19) and Christina Aguilera (“Stripped … Live” RCA, no date yet).

Execs report no soundtracks on the horizon, either late summer popcorn fare or Oscar contenders, with major sales potential.

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