A swing and a miss yet again

Record biz looks for hits as it sweats in the dugout of summer doldrums

Strikeouts and errors are piling up faster and faster for the music industry as it appears desperate to find a rookie that can produce hits.

Welcome to yet another summer mired in a slump. Last year, the concert biz was whiffing regularly as the summer wore on, and this year it’s recorded music’s turn. At 2005’s halfway mark, music sales are 7% behind last year.

For the first six months of 2005, 28.6 million albums have been sold, 20.4 million units behind ’04, which had a rather strong first half and a post-July slump. To catch up before the crucial final quarter, diskeries will need to sell almost 170 million albums by late September.

The next three months has a lineup populated by rookies, recent call-ups from the minors and a few players with little track record. But more than ’04, there’s a sizable list of hitmakers returning to the field.

At least eight albums have the potential for significant first-week sales: Kanye West, Faith Hill, the “Stealth” soundtrack (featuring three new Incubus tunes), Missy Elliott, 311, Babyface, Hilary Duff and Joe Budden. Add to that, the 19th edition of the “NOW! That’s What I Call Music” series; “Now! 18” sold 339,000 copies in its debut week in March.

Summer started with a solid outing from George Strait, whose “Somewhere Down in Texas” sold 245,000 copies in its debut stanza; R. Kelly’s “TP.3 Reloaded,” issued July 5 by Sony BMG’s Zomba, is expected to top 500,000 in its debut sesh.

Last summer (mid-June to the end of September) saw only four acts top 250,000 units in sales in their first week, and only one of those acts, Ashlee Simpson, was releasing a debut disc.

(The boffo debuts of ’04 were Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” at 766,000, R. Kelly’s “Happy People/U Saved Me” at 403,000, the Beastie Boys’ “To the 5 Boroughs” at 360,000 and Green Day’s “American Idiot” at 267,000.)

Besides Simpson, the summer of ’04 did launch Breaking Benjamin, the Hives, Taking Back Sunday, Ryan Cabrera, Skye Sweetnam and the return of Jill Scott.

Faith Hill’s “Fireflies,” the highest-profile album from Warner Bros. this summer, will be released Aug. 2. Atlantic will release Cold’s “A Different Kind of Pain” on Aug. 30. Atlantic’s Missy Elliott is looking at sales of at least 100,000 of “The Cookbook” (Atlantic), which was released last week. On July 26, Atlantic turns to Jason Mraz’s “Mr. A to Z.”

Sony BMG’s Arista drops Babyface’s first album in four years, “Grown & Sexy,” also on July 26. Conglom’s Epic Records is riding high on three new Incubus tunes included on the “Stealth” soundtrack, in stores July 12.

EMI’s Capitol Records has put a big circle around Sept. 13, the day they release The Dandy Warhols’ “Odditorium or Warlords of Mars,” Bonnie Raitt’s “Souls Alike” and Paul McCartney’s latest studio effort. A week earlier, EMI’s Virgin will release the latest from the Rolling Stones. And on the 27th, Liz Phair follows up her self-titled pop-oriented breakthrough with “Somebody’s Miracle”

Universal Music Group labels are mum on late-summer scheduling but expect to release CDs from Sheryl Crow, Budden, Enrique Iglesias, Mary J. Blige, Dr. Dre, Snow Patrol and Blink 182, though some titles could be pushed into the fall and winter.

It should, however, produce one of the summer’s biggest sellers, Kanye West’s “Late Registration.” Set for an Aug. 30 release on UMG’s Roc-a-Fella, label is hoping the rapper’s sophomore effort will outdo his debut, which sold 441,000 copies in its first week in February 2004.

Hollywood has Hilary Duff’s “Most Wanted” and Volcano/Zomba has 311’s “Don’t Tread on Me” on the Aug. 16 docket. Arista Nashville has the date booked for Brad Paisley’s “Time Well Wasted”; tyro bluegrass act Nickel Creek hits stalls a week earlier with “Why Should the Fire Die?” (Sugar Hill).

Among the summer’s upstarts are Houston rapper Slim Thug making his debut July 12 for Geffen after countless guest appearances, and Paul Wall, the Southern gangsta rapper, who makes his Atlantic debut Aug. 16.

Atlantic will also have power pop act the Click Five’s “Greetings From Imrie House” on the Aug. 16 slate, the same day Capitol is releasing Idlewild’s “Warnings/Promises.” On the 30th, Capitol again goes to the young rock world for OK Go’s “Oh No.”

Columbia is in the young femme game with 23-year-old Brandi Carlile, whose inspiration runs from Patsy Cline to Radiohead.

Sister label Epic is also pushing two young femme warblers: Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” comes out July 26, and Nikki Flores’ “This Girl” arrives Sept. 13. Bedingfield’s debut was released in September in the U.K. and has spawned hit singles in other countries; Flores is a 16-year-old Mexican-American who sings pop and R&B.

AOL Music has pegged Bedingfield as one of the breakout artists the online service will promote, along with pop-rockers the Veronicas, country singer Keith Anderson; hip-hop singer/songwriter Yummy Bingham, R&B singer/songwriter Trey Songz and pop-punks Fall Out Boy.

Other veteran acts with summer releases include Carly Simon, Willie Nelson, Son Volt, Mary Mary, Alice Cooper, Jaguar Wright, Staind, Hootie & the Blowfish, Tommy Lee, Thalia and Earth, Wind & Fire.

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