Bieber fever boils tweens’ brains. The “Glee” cast crushes all comers on the Hot 100 chart (203 singles and counting, topping the Beatles and Elvis combined). In just 16 months, Adele’s “21” has become the best-selling album of the millennium.
And despite the music industry frantically pushing fresh blockbuster acts, old albums will outsell new ones in 2012 for the first time.
In the first half of 2012, catalog albums — the industry’s term for discs released more than 18 months ago — sold 76.6 million units. New albums tallied 73.9 units. It’s a narrow victory, but the margin will increase slowly, steadily over time. New will never top old again.
What’s going on? Industry executives point the finger at online piracy, streaming and the death of radio. Huge chunks of fans complain there has been nothing worth listening to since the Beatles broke up or Led Zeppelin called it quits or Kurt Cobain killed himself. Those explanations are bogus.
While radio stations tend to play older artists instead of breaking deserving new ones, there’s no evidence people are stealing and streaming “21” more than “Abbey Road.” And anyone who thinks old music is better than new music isn’t listening to new music. Neko Case, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire and a hundred other young acts are delivering brilliant art.
There is a simple, straightforward reason so many catalog titles dot Billboard’s album charts this summer: price cuts.
Labels and retailers have slashed prices on catalog releases, making them, on average, $5 cheaper than new releases. This has had a dramatic effect. Phil Collins couldn’t be less hip, but last week, when Amazon’s MP3 store cut Collins’ “...Hits” to 99 cents, Mr. Sussudio popped in at No. 6, ahead of such contemporary stars as One Direction, Chris Brown and Maroon 5 on the Billboard 200.
But price cuts only sped up the inevitable. Recorded pop music is more than a century old. It’s reached a tipping point. There will never be enough Beliebers, Gleeks or Adele enthusiasts to outweigh the buying power of fans of Louis Armstrong, Elvis, Bob Dylan, ABBA, U2 and a thousand other classic artists.
The music industry has made a big deal out of the milestone that had to come. It should focus on other numbers. Even with Adele’s global conquest and deeply dis-counted classic titles, total album sales slipped 3.2 percent in the first half of 2012 as compared to a year ago.
New vs. old doesn’t matter much. What matters is total sales. Right now, people aren’t buying like they used to.