A Short Interview

And the moral of the story is: remove all your embarassing pictures from the internet before you do an interview with me.

I need to introduce my friend, Chris Short. He’s been a tastemaker for almost fifteen years. (Yeah, that’s right, you’re getting old!!) I coined the term “Chris Short rock,” in fact, to discuss music that he seems to go nutso about the most–big guitar rock with meaty hooks (bands like Guided By Voices, The Replacements and The Bon Mots). In the late 90s, he ran a short-lived, but oh-so-influential zine called Tidal Wave Magazine. He’s written some enthusiastic album reviews and interviewed some of my favorite artists and has run a blog, This Is Not Entertainment, for a while now, chronicling his listening habits. He’s a nerd and has some nuanced system of rating albums that makes it much too easy for him to crank out year-end and decade-end lists.

A few weeks ago, Short started tweeting about how Billboard measures only a niche market. This seems counter-intuitive, right? Didn’t breaking the top 100 used to mean that you’ve sold out? Strangely enough, I agree with him, as it seems much easier than ever for indie rock bands to hit the top twenty. The topic intrigues me, so I asked him a few questions…

What do you do for a living and how long have you been into music?

I am a Manager of Marketing Analytics for a multi-billion dollar retail corporation. I use statistical methods based on vasts amount of data to gain deeper understanding of consumer shopping behavior. I use this data to build models to predict behavior.

I’ve been into music since I first heard KISS –  Destroyer in 1976.

You say that “Billboard charts represent a niche market.” Define a niche market.

A niche market is a subset of a broad consumer market – in the case of the music market, the niche is people who purchase full-length records whether physical (CDs, vinyl) or digitally (MP3s). A niche market represents specific customer behaviors that are unique and differentiated from the mainstream (in my hypothesis, the mainstream buys songs not albums).

Why do you think Billboard only measures that now?

The mainstream consumer of music does not buy albums, they cherry-pick songs from new releases – Apple’s iTunes music store continues to show sales increases, driven by single song sales. Conversely, CD sales (that is, full-length records) are down 54.6% since a peak in 2000. Therefore, those who still buy records (whether physical or digital) are an interesting, unique group of consumers.

Here is an interesting comparison – looking at Eminem’s sales of his “comeback” record Relapse:

  • Relapse was #1 on the Billboard 200 for the first two weeks of its release. The album sold 609K in the first week and 211K copies in week2 (total to 820K).
  • The total for Relapse, however, pales compared to Eminem’s last studio album, Encore, which sold 1,582,000 copies in its first two weeks in November 2004.

Billboard charts are still based on number of units sold, but those units have dropped dramatically. Check out these nuggets:

  • Vampire Weekend’s new record debuted at #1 w/124K units sold that week.
  • American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert’s record sold 225K in its first week of release but debuted at #3.
  • Country singer Luke Bryan debuted at #6 on the Billboard chart with only 57K units sold.
  • Britain’s Got Talent sensation/feel-good-story-of-the-year Susan Boyle sold a whopping 701K in the first week of release.
  • The Black Eyed Peas only sold 304K of their most recent record in first week of release. Their previous record debuted at #2 and sold 291K.
  • Ke$ha opens at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with her debut album, Animal, shifting 152,000 copies…of that figure, an eye-popping 76% was made up of digital downloads

How about indie rock? It’s crazy to see obscure bands going Top 20 – I remember when R.E.M. cracked the Top 20 with Document in 1987 and I thought that was amazing. Here are some numbers from January 2009 (thanks to Pitchfork for this summary):

  • Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast lands at number 12, selling 25,000 copies, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
  • Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion lands right behind at number 13, selling 25,000 copies.
  • And finally, Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP enters at number 16, selling 23,000.

These sales are paltry!!!

Much to do was made about Kid A cracking the Top 100 in late 2009 – well, it probably sold around 1,000 units from people who read lists summarizing the best records of the 2000s. Not much of a feat!

Has Billboard ever had its finger on the pulse of what most americans buy? If so, what’s changed? And don’t just say the internet…

Most definitely. When CDs were at their peak, people made a point to buy the whole record. In the 1990s there were several major record store chains: Tower Records, Sam Goody, Blockbuster Music, Virgin Megastores….how many are left? None. Still, in those halcyon days, these retail operations were profitable because they were able to move massive amounts of product. The Billboard charts reflected that – if you had a #1 record you sold 500K or more. The Top Ten was comprised of mega-sellers and everyone made money – the labels, the artists, the stores.

What changed? Obviously the advent and proliferation of digital. I really believe it was Napster – where the business model turned the album into something that could be picked apart and cost nothing. The mainstream music consumer didn’t have to shell out $13 or more for two or three “hits” inside a full-length record, s/he could just get those hits via download on the Napster servers. Post-Napster brouhaha, the Apple iTunes store put the nail in the coffin for the album with its single song pricing model.

If Billboard represents that niche, how can the industry see what the majority of people are consuming in 2010?

They can look at single track sales from iTunes Store, amazon.com, and various other digital music services (Napster, eMusic, Zune Marketplace, etc.). Also, concert ticket sales. But again, these aren’t really mainstream America – not many people go to concerts regularly. Just another leading indicator for identifying the nice market.

If record companies are trying to understand how to sell more product/units, then they have to market to this niche market, who’ll I’ll call Full-Length Record Buyers. They need to understand that this group will be intensely loyal, but will never exhibit the collective buying to generate the sales of the 1990s. It’s a new game.

What were the last five bands you listened to?

Deleted Waveform Gatherings, Davalia 666, Hammock, Mogwai and Johnny Foreigner

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One thought on “A Short Interview

  1. bob atkins says:

    Great interview which concisely sums up the state of things.
    It doesn’t seem like only 10 years ago I was wolfing down whole CDs from both used and new stores; trading them in scores when I wanted something new WITHOUT ripping them, as that scene really hadn’t taken off.

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