Serious Question: What Happened To Album Sales?
Whatever happened to the good old days when all a musician had to do to sell an album was…make an album? Well, that’s a gross oversimplification of the way the music industry works. But bad contracts aside, there used to be a definitive, tried and true formula for label-repped artists that resulted in the selling of millions of albums that made all parties involved stupid rich. I’m talking swimming in a room full of dough à la Scrooge McDuck rich. But in a market dominated by singles in which consumers download or stream music for free 99 via a host of services like Spotify, Pandora, YouTube and the like, music artists today have to employ a different hustle altogether. They do this all in an effort to promote their music while countering the challenges of declining album sales and record companies that don’t promote nearly as much as they used to.
This drop in album sales is something singers Miguel and Ciara know a lot about. Both have released albums in recent months, Wildheart and Jackie respectively – neither of which performed very well. Jackie, Ciara’s sixth studio effort, had the lowest first-week sales of all her albums to date and sold roughly 20,000 copies during that crucial first week. Talk about disappointing. It’s safe to say that people know more about Ci Ci’s sex life with new boyfriend Russell Wilson (or lack thereof), her ongoing bouts with former fiancé Future, and her Roberto Cavalli campaign than her latest music. But for those who have paid attention, some critics have referred to Jackie as a missed opportunity for Ciara. A chance lost to delve into deeper issues (like her breakup with Future), rather than rely on the club-banger, dance-heavy, lyric-light songs she’s used to singing. But Ciara is serving what she’s always given us. And perhaps that’s the problem, in addition to the current harder-to-chart musical landscape, and lack of heavy promotion from her label. The singer even promoted her album on her own to fellow passengers while on a flight from London to L.A. This is a trend that has seemingly become popular among artists like Brandy and Tyrese. More on him later.
Miguel’s new album Wildheart, which my MadameNoire editor says is “crack,” fared a little better than Ciara’s. It sold just over 40,000 copies in its first week, but that’s still not saying much, despite the fact that critics showered it with praise. Miguel, who for reasons unbeknownst to me, is often compared to Frank Ocean, flat out said that he makes better music than the Channel Orange singer and songwriter. But even that wannabe/potential beef didn’t help Miguel sell his album.
Both Miguel and Ciara are two respected, Grammy-winning artists who have sold well before, and yet here they find themselves in a position that you’d expect a lesser-known artist with limited label access to be in. Is this a sign of the times? The new norm? Is R&B indeed dying, or worse yet, dead?
Well, based on Tyrese’s success, not exactly. His latest release, Black Rose, an independent album, is his first number one album on the Billboard 200, according to Nielsen. Not only has it sold close to 90,000 units since its July 10th release, but it was also the number one album in 15 countries. This, coming from an artist who publicly stated on Power 105’s The Breakfast Club that R&B is indeed dead. Said the singer, “…a lot of us [in R&B] are insecure and we feel like our songs don’t get attention, don’t get no love on the radio, don’t have any fans buying it anymore unless we’ve got 15 rappers on it.”
To counter that insecurity, Tyrese has been on a promotional binder and has gone to some extraordinary lengths, including re-enacting the Coca-Cola commercial that first brought him to our attention in 1994. He has hit the NYC subway asking for support (while exclaiming he left major record labels so he could do his thing as an indie artist). He even recorded a spiel with a sleeping homeless woman, comparing her to people sleeping on R&B. He also penned an open letter to mainstream radio stations regarding the disparity between the promotion of music between Black and White R&B singers. But Tyrese has one other promotional tool that Ciara and Miguel don’t: He’s the co-star of the country’s highest-grossing film this year, Furious 7. It would be hard to miss the work of an artist from such a popular and beloved franchise. I mean, they made seven movies. Seven.
But for every Tyrese, there’s a Bilal, Tamia, Kenny Lattimore and Johnny Gill – all of whom have released new albums that you won’t find sizzling on the Hot 100 chart. For artists to sell nowadays, they not only have to promote like crazy (unless of course you’re Beyoncé, in which case you can drop an album sans prior promotion and have it sell like hot cakes), but package your brand via stints on reality TV, shoe and clothing lines, perfume, modeling contracts, and whatever else your team can think of. A little mitigated controversy doesn’t hurt either. Stir up some ish on Twitter, and folks will talk about you instantly. Although, not necessarily about your music.
But don’t fret or weep for your favorite artists. Even in this brave new world of music, they’re still richer than you. And as long as they’re making good music, true fans will find a way to support them and keep their careers afloat.