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Play a Sad Tune for 1995 Record Sales

September 14, 1995

The music business isn’t rocking any more.

On the heels of the best year in the industry’s history, record retailers and label executives say that sales have flattened alarmingly. New albums from such established superstars as Rod Stewart, Paula Abdul and Michael Jackson have fizzled, and talent scouts have unearthed only a few new stars.

``I don’t think there is a retailer in the country who wouldn’t admit to being disappointed this year,″ says Ivan Lipton, president of Strawberries Inc., a music and video store chain based in Milford, Mass. ``The top names didn’t take off like rockets and ignite sales.″

One of the most striking disappointments has been Michael Jackson’s double-album ``HIStory,″ which has sold 1.4 million copies in the U.S. since its June release by Sony Corp. Although the numbers are respectable for an album that retails for an average of $25, Mr. Jackson’s stratospheric celebrity created much higher expectations, especially among retailers depending on the album’s huge promotion budget to bring in summer traffic. A spokeswoman for Sony Music says ``HIStory″ has sold seven million units world-wide and that the company ``is satisfied″ with its performance.

Making matters worse is the drought of new talent after a hot 1994 that saw the emergence of Sheryl Crow, Green Day and a long list of others. So far, 1995 has brought only a smattering of promising newcomers, such as Sony’s Australian teenage band Silverchair and Maverick/Reprise’s Alanis Morissette, whose screeching discarded lover’s lament, ``You Oughta Know,″ filled the airwaves all summer.

The result: Album and single sales totaled only 427.2 million units through Sept. 3, a 0.3 percent gain from a year ago, according to SoundScan Inc., which compiles the Billboard charts. Album sales inched up only 1.4 percent to 365.1 million, while sales of singles fell 5.5 percent to 62.1 million units. The decline of singles _ once considered a vital marketing tool _ has been so striking that some labels have already begun lowering prices per disk to $3.49 from $4.95 to attract younger customers with less spending money. Adds Mike Shalett, chief operating officer of SoundScan, ``Such key categories as classical, jazz and heavy metal are all down at least 5 percent year to date.″

To some, the lackluster results suggest that Generation X shoppers _ those 18 to 24 years old _ have definitively rejected the classic rock `n’ rollers who long made up the music industry’s economic foundation _ including such performers as Elton John and Neil Young.

``There’s a sea change under way,″ says Stephen Dessau, president of Track Marketing Inc., a New York-based music and entertainment marketing company. ``The younger generation is experiencing a sense of economic deprivation, and artists who travel in Rolls-Royces and by Concorde don’t speak to them. The big superstars didn’t make a dent this past summer, while a band like Hootie & the Blowfish, which was playing in bars two years ago, has sold more than five million albums.″

But other forces besides taste may be responsible for the disappointing numbers. In recent years, consumers have switched from tape and vinyl to digital compact disks, a shift that drove sales as many fans replaced albums already in their collections. That replacement buying now appears to be slowing.

To be sure, the third and fourth quarters provide the majority of the music industry’s sales and earnings, and later this year new albums are due from such top performers as the punk band Green Day, the Beatles and Mariah Carey. As Mr. Lipton of Strawberries emphasizes, ``It’s too early to write off the year. A lot is riding on the fourth quarter.″

Still, 1995 started slowly and failed to develop the summer momentum that retailers were counting on. ``When there isn’t an emotional response, people don’t buy records,″ says Allen Kovac, chief executive of the Left Bank Organization, an artist-management concern. ``The problem is that the big corporate record companies are following, not leading. Now that Alanis Morissette has a big album, you can bet that any number of singers are going to be signed that sound just like her.″

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