Is the hit single back? Consumers, propelled by the ease of buying digital songs piecemeal, have increasingly decided that the single unit of music is their unit of choice, noted music writer Tom Ewing in The Guardian last week -- just as hard-partying pop star Ke$ha broke the one-week record for digital downloads sold by a female artist. Ke$ha's ode to decadence, Tik Tok, now in its third week at Billboard Hot 100's No. 1, sold a whopping 610,000 copies for Sony (SNE) Music Entertainment's RCA imprint during the chart week ending Dec. 27. That's the second-highest single-week sales total for any one song, second only to Flo Rida's Right Round, which sold 636,000 copies last February.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% The album has long served as the gold standard for measuring artists' successes. The multitrack album suggests a label's commitment to an artist, but more important, it also has higher profit margins than a unit priced between 69 cents and $1.29 (a pricepoint launched on Apple's (AAPL) iTunes Store last spring that's become commonplace. Today, 179 of the iTunes Store's top 200 songs cost $1.29; the rest are priced at 99 cents.)

One test of whether Ke$ha consumers will be willing to commit to the brand beyond three minutes of Tik Tok will come this week, with first-week sales for her debut album, Animal. Early buzz has Animal doing well, with 120,000 to 130,000 copies projected to sell in its first week.

That number will likely be enough to wrest the top album spot from Susan Boyle, although it's nowhere near the 2.4 million virtual copies Tik Tok has sold. And another track from Animal, Blah Blah Blah, is currently the top iTunes single-track chart, suggesting that Ke$ha might be the latest outsized personality, after Katy Perry and Lady GaGa, to keep the attention of the increasingly fickle music-buying public beyond one single's promotional cycle.

Short-Lived Dominance?

But could the dominance of the single be as brief as the heyday of the ringtone -- when the music business was banking its future on song snippets (sold for even more than $1.29)? The slowing growth rate of digital music suggests, according to Billboard analyst Glenn Peoples, that "barring an immensely successful new product or service, it could plateau by 2011." During the just-ended holidays, when digital sales got a boost from gift certificates to iTunes and Amazon, and when Ke$ha racked up her eye-popping tally -- track sales were actually down year-to-year, Peoples noted:
Combined tracks from sales of individual tracks and digital albums (using 12 tracks per album for calculations) were up only 0.4% in the first four weeks of December. Slight gains in digital albums were canceled out by losses in digital tracks. Track sales were down 3.8% during the period. Sales in Christmas week 2009 were 6% lower than Christmas week 2008 and only 4% higher than Christmas week 2007. Year-over-year track sales were down 6% the week before Christmas as well. Digital albums had a better, albeit lackluster, first four weeks of December. Unit sales during the period rose 6% and Christmas week sales were 7% higher than the previous year.
One reason for track sales being down, Peoples wrote, is the higher pricing of hit songs, but he's careful to say that "there is more behind the sales slowdown than higher prices." Perhaps the increase in streaming from sites like AOL Music and YouTube could be one factor. But more ominous reasons about the state of pop music linger -- particularly the decreased visibility of new music on outlets that have a wide broadcast berth.

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