Music Industry Hopes Hinge on Fall Releases

For music retailers, autumn can't come fast enough.

Bruised by slumping sales, they're hoping a slew of releases over the next few months from Macy Gray, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Tori Amos, Elton John, Bob Dylan, DMX and Jay-Z, among others will be enough to turn their fortunes around.

Figures from Soundscan, which tracks music sales nationwide, shows that overall sales for the first eight months of 2001 are down about 4.4 percent from the same year-earlier period. Album sales are down about 2 percent, and singles are down a whopping 34.7 percent.

That drop-off may be attributed to the teen pop phenomenon wearing off.

Last year, three of the four biggest first-week sales came from the teen pop genre: Spears sold 1.3 million copies of Oops ... I Did It Again; the Backstreet Boys' Black & Blue 1.6 million, and 'N Sync's No Strings Attached a record 2.4 million.

But this year, 'N Sync had the only release to sell more than 1 million in its debut week: Celebrity sold 1.9 million in July.

Rapper Ludacris, among the artists releasing new albums this fall, attributed the lack of big sellers this year to the wide selection of music available.

"I just think it's hard competition this year, and you have to strive to do the best," he said. "There's a lot of stuff that people are buying."

Joe Pagano, senior vice president of enterprise entertainment for the retail chain Best Buy, said this year hasn't been as bad as some have made it out to be.

"I think it's been a soft year in music, but not necessarily a disappointing one," he said.

Still, that doesn't mean Pagano isn't looking eagerly toward the fall: the last four months of the year is traditionally the biggest moneymaking period for retailers, as record companies flood record stores with major releases.

This year is no exception.

Already, retailers are pinning their hopes on Gray's The Id, the follow-up to her Grammy-winning, multiplatinum debut, On How Life Is.

"We did really really well with the last record ... I think the Macy Gray record is going to be a huge record for the fall, at all retail stores," said Terry Currier, owner of Music Millennium, two record stores in Portland, Ore.

Gray's album is scheduled for release this month, when Tori Amos, Babyface and Mariah Carey also are coming out with new CDs.

Carey's Glitter, the first for Virgin Records since her break from Columbia, would have been heavily scrutinized even before her recent breakdown.

Although Carey has always been a big seller, the lackluster radio response to her latest single, "Loverboy," and poor advance word for her upcoming Glitter film, makes her among the fall's biggest question marks.

"The initial reaction was not favorable," said John Bitzer, editor-director at the online music retailer CDNOW. "I think her fan base will come to her rescue to some degree, but I don't think it's going to be one of her bigger records."

Perhaps the fall's if not the year's most anticipated release is Michael Jackson's Invincible, his first album of all-new material since 1995's HIStory.

HIStory, released after the child abuse allegations against him, went multiplatinum but was still considered to be a disappointment compared to the mammoth numbers Jackson has logged at music stores in the past.

Currier said it was hard to gauge how well Jackson's album would sell once it comes out in October, but he doubted it would be among the fall's top sellers.

"His big days are gone. He may still have the tag 'King of Pop,' but as far as sales," Currier said, "it's going to depend on the record. It's not going to be monster."

However, Tom Calderone, MTV's senior vice president for music programming, said he believed it could be a big hit.

"I heard about nine tracks, and they're all solid, they are just home runs," he said.

One of Jackson's admirers, Spears, is coming out with her next album in November.

With the decline of teen pop, attention will be focused on whether Spears can deliver another best seller.

"It will do fine, but it won't be a big sensation," Bitzer predicted.

Calderone noted that Spears has promised to take a different, more mature direction this time around.

"She's definitely taking a lot more risks," Calderone said. "I think the important pop stars are smart enough to understand that they (have to)."

With the teen pop craze waning, rock music has had a resurgence. That should only grow in the fall, with CDs from Creed, Kid Rock and Incubus, say retailers.

"There's more of that coming, and it seems as if that's really starting to hit its stride," Bitzer said.

With acts such as Korn and Lenny Kravitz also hitting the stores with new material this fall, retailers are encouraged.

"It may be disappointing compared to some of the previous years, but in retrospect, there are still a lot of records being sold," said Bitzer.