In slow year for music biz, artists think fast to sell CDs

Of the tactics tried, some worked well

others ... well

December 26, 2007|By Todd Martens

Another year and another major decline in CD sales for the music business. But even as album sales dip, labels and artists continue to find creative ways to try to sell music: Radiohead, for example, tried to make money by telling fans they didn't have to spend a dime. Others opted for comic books.

Here's a critique of what worked -- and what didn't -- when it came to marketing the album over the past 12 months.

Radiohead

The tactic: Radiohead announced Oct. 1 that its new album would be released in 10 days. The distribution system? The Internet. The cost? Whatever you want.

The review: Radiohead is keeping a lid on just how many hard drives were graced with In Rainbows. And with a higher-quality CD coming out Tuesday, the move wasn't quite as revolutionary as we first thought. But no other group of this stature has so bluntly worked around the industry model.

Grade: A

Avril Lavigne

The tactic: The U.S.-via-Canada pop star said the heck with dwindling U.S. album sales and became the star of a comic book -- one targeted at mobile phone users in Asia. And she recorded her lead single, "Girlfriend," in at least seven languages.

The review: The comic Make 5 Wishes isn't exactly The Dark Knight Returns, but credit the Lavigne team for thinking globally and including some unreleased tracks in the comic downloads.

Grade: B-

The Eagles

The tactic: For the Eagles' first original album in nearly 30 years, the group partnered with Wal-Mart for an exclusive release.

The review: The band's The Long Road Out of Eden has become one of the top-selling albums of 2007 -- not bad for a record that came out Oct. 30.

Grade: C-

Prince

The tactic: Prince teamed with U.K. newspaper The Mail to bundle the Sunday, July 15, edition with his new CD, Planet Earth.

The review: The move caused the ire of retailers and prompted Sony BMG U.K. to refuse to release the album in the territory. But the artist has long used the CD as a loss leader -- a means to selling concert tickets.

Grade: B+ (grade deflated because it only benefited the English)

Bright Eyes

The tactic: Bright Eyes set out to make the CD package for Cassadaga indispensable, dressing it with artwork that could only be seen with a viewfinder.

The review: Inventive packaging is becoming rare. Additionally, it likely inspired a few more fans to buy a physical product. In its first week in stores in May, downloads accounted for 24 percent of Cassadaga's total sales, which was lower than other popular indie acts.

Grade: B

Nine Inch Nails

The tactic: The release of Year Zero in the spring was turned into an elaborate interactive game. Learning about the album turned into a giant online scavenger hunt that entered the real world via cryptic clothing and hiding USB drives at concerts.

The review: Year Zero ranks up there with Trent Reznor's best work with Nine Inch Nails, and the marketing took a larger view of the album, turning the world into an elaborate NIN-playing field.

Grade: A

New Pornographers

The tactic: In August, Matador Records released an "Executive Edition" with the New Pornographers' Challengers. Available at indie retailers, the "Executive Edition" consisted of three blank discs given to those who purchased the album. Buyers would then download the material themselves.

The review: Three discs of extra content, costing about $20, is delightful. But the plan was convoluted, and had fans leaving stores with blank New Pornographers-branded discs, forcing them to assemble the package themselves. Please -- we're paying for content, not for a craft project.

Grade: D+

Kanye West, 50 Cent

The tactic: Feud! 50 Cent declared he would stop making solo albums if Kanye West's new album outsold his in the first week of distribution.

The review: At first, it seemed like buying West's Graduation over 50 Cent's Curtis would benefit a good cause. But the artists involved had no qualms about admitting that the sales battle was little more than an effort to get fans into stores.

Grade: F

Todd Martens writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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