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Name: Adam Bernard
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About Me: Entertainment journalist with 15+ years of experience. Supporter of indie music. Lover of day baseball, fringe movies, & chicken shawarma. Part time ninja. Nerdy, but awesome.
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First Week Phonies
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

By now everyone has seen the undeniably fabricated first week sales numbers of Lil’ Wayne’s latest album. Personally, when I heard the final tally I had visions of Rick Ross and Jay-Z, both of whom were given a sizable sales boost by virtue of their own label picking up a large number of their albums to create inflated numbers. Let’s set the record straight; there is no way in an industry where the biggest of artists are down 60% and rap artists, on average, are down even more, that Lil’ Wayne not only didn’t go down in sales, but went up by over 100% from his previous effort. There’s an old pro wrestling term for the folks who believe Wayne’s first week numbers are real; marks. This post isn’t going to be about all the ways I feel those numbers have been falsified, though, rather I’m going to turn my attention to the actual importance of first week sales numbers and why, in the long run, we’d all be better off if we didn’t know them.

For all the important statistics Soundscan has been providing record labels for the past 17 years none has been more overrated than first week sales. If you look at the importance placed on where a record debuts since Soundscan’s inception in 1991 you can also see a parallel in the downturn in the quality of the music. Artists and their labels have gone from making music to attempting to make a sales splash which, in turn, has resulted in a music listening public being force fed some truly awful tunes all under the covert sales pitch of “it debuted at #1,” or the classic cliché “it shipped gold” (how many times did we hear that about a rap album in the 90’s!?!?)

If you look at pre-Soundscan music history artists used to work hard to push their albums for literally years, not just one week. They would release multiple singles and build an audience and, in turn, sales over a period of time. There was a long term vision for each artist (or at least most artists) and the labels saw that and recognized there was money to be made that way. Today only a handful of artists still work the singles game correctly to create album sales. Fergie, Daughtry and Nickleback all stayed in Billboard’s Top 20 for over a full year, the latter sticking around for TWO years. Hate on them all you want, but THAT is an accomplishment. There is also a long list of albums that have ended up going multi-platinum without ever hitting #1. Once again, it’s all about building an audience, not making a quick buck.

The idea of taking one’s time with an album doesn’t necessarily fit into today’s iTunes - first week sales numbers - if the first single doesn’t hit you won’t get another chance - music industry. It should, though. That is, if the industry wants to survive. The age of an album shouldn’t have anything to do with how hard you push it, and this goes for artists, both mainstream and independent, as well as labels. The only thing anyone should be concerned about is whether the album in question is good. If your album is good it doesn’t matter how old it is, and if you don’t feel it’s good you probably shouldn’t have released it in the first place.

There is one very easy way to bring those ideals back again, but what I’m about to suggest may not fly in an instant information age. I think it would do a world of good if we delayed sales numbers by a full month. This way when Lil’ Wayne, or anyone (I don’t mean to pick on Wayne, he’s just an obvious example right now), releases an album the question people will have of it during its second and third weeks of release won’t be “how much did it sell,” or “what was his sales drop from week one to week two,” but rather “is it any good?” And when the sales numbers eventually come out they won’t have that huge of an affect on the way people feel about the record because most folks will have come to a conclusion about it based on the musical merits of the album. In an era where sales numbers are at an all-time low this is an idea the industry should strongly consider. Significantly more artists are being hurt today rather than helped by people looking at sales numbers and labels need to realize their true return on investment in an artist should be measured over months and years, not days and weeks.

Right now far too many people think of an album’s validity in terms of sales. We need to right that and remind people that sales aren’t the be all and end all of music. If an artist only sells 6,000 albums in their first week it doesn’t make them any less talented than an artist who sells 60,000. Remember, we’re supposed to be enjoying music, not playing a numbers game.


posted by Adam Bernard @ 7:45 AM  
  • At 10:04 AM, Blogger Enigmatik said…

    you raise some excellent points in this post. first week sales are ok to look at, but fans of today see those numbers as the end all be all without truly examining what's going on behind the stats. a million sold in a week, whether true or false, doesn't guarantee that the music is actually 'classic' material.

    sometimes it just means that a million, true or false, people bought a coaster.

  • At 3:26 PM, Blogger I Sort Glass said…

    I agree. Great article.

  • At 2:09 PM, Blogger A1 said…

    i agree they never use to do that back in the days-artist use to grind their singles on the radio for months before an album was released, (the cd single).
    now artist are dropping thier albums a week after the single debut on the radio.-- and they kill me when you go buy a cd and it says "featuring the samsh hit" --like the song just debut on mtv two days ago how is it a smash hit-lolol- artist need to go back to the old days and build anticipation of a good album, when it was special to hear snippets of 3 songs from the album. good article

  • At 1:47 PM, Blogger Good Life said…

    Im a first timer, but I am definitely sticking around. Great read with excellent insight.

  • At 2:00 PM, Blogger Adam Bernard said…

    Thanks for all the feedback, and welcome aboard Good Life!

  • At 3:33 PM, Blogger Safari said…

    Makes complete sense, and I think that the current climate in the music industry the people that share this train of thought will succeed.

    Great read..

  • At 10:52 AM, Blogger redstinger83 said…

    No wonder why Chicano rap artists say "Fuck Soundscan..."

    In addition to the first week delay, you should try this: "Due to the mass increase in the amount of fresh new talent, we are now requiring all artists of all genres - be they independent or major - to submit sales records for the first month, rather than first week." I'll explain: when hip hop was declared dead by Nas and caused by Don Imus' racial statement, record sales for artists within the hip hop community declined. It never caused an effect within the Latin Hip Hop/Chicano Rap genres, but they are still being outcasted in regards to stereotype. Also, many artist avoid the Billboard charts for fear of being brought into the mainstream and, at a sacrifice, shift from a respected musician to a sell-out. What the industry needs to do now is allow their musicians - not A&Rs or industry buffs - to get in touch with their fanbase, develop their music within themselves and allow their sales to grow independently. Sales tabulation is mandatory for the first four weeks, of course. After month one has passed, the data get turned over to Billboard, and sales are tabulated according to individual sales (not shipments, because some artists are still doing business in the back of their trunks - no offense, up-and-comers). Hope this trick works.

  • At 3:26 PM, Blogger Priest said…

    I think another thing tha has to be taken into account is tha fact that tha reserves come back. Just because I shiped a million units doesn't mean thass a million units sold. That means that the record company sent a million copies out to their distributors. If no one goes into the stores and buys these records then they get shipped back to the record company at the artists expense.

    I never believed this brother sold a million units anyway. The majority of his fans seem to download to me.

    Priest Forever

  • At 11:01 AM, Blogger Scott Mason a.k.a. Scotty Mase said…

    Adam, you're an intelligent person. That is my biggest problem with today's record sales. The record industry nailed their own coffin when they sued Napster because they had an opportunity to seize a new method of distribution and tailor it to their liking. But instead, they were concerned with moving units and now, the "record industry" is dying a slow and deserved death. The music industry will live on forever. There was a music industry before records and there will be a music industry after records.

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