Where Has All The Platinum Gone?


Published: Febrary 14, 2008

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, the best-selling album of all-time (104 million copies worldwide), the contrast between the current musical climate and that of yesteryear has never been more apparent. We are living in a digital era during which people are downloading, rather than buying, music.

When surveyed about their music habits, 45 percent of FCLC students said they either never or rarely buy compact discs. Only 13 percent said they often or always buy CDs. Most said they instead download music for little or no cost. This phenomena obviously isn’t limited to FCLC. The economy is likely heading towards a recession, and people generally have less disposable income. Only nine albums released in 2007 were certified by the RIAA as multi-platinum, selling at least 2 million copies.

The total of nine albums can be considered stellar in an industry that is hurting badly as far as sales, but their success is hardly surprising. Under examination, most of these records followed formulas, benefiting from tried and tested marketing strategies, extensive fan bases that were anxiously awaiting their favorite band’s first release in years, or heavy promotion from a specific television program or movie.

“Formulas are overplayed. Promotion is so planned and mechanical that we may lose the soul of the music,” believes Monique Fortuné, professor of communication and media studies. “Promoters will do what’s necessary to move the units.”

“Long Road Out of Eden,” by the The Eagles, was 2007’s most successful album, going 7x platinum in just over two months. This double-disc is The Eagles’ first studio album since 1979, so while its high sales appear to be an aberration, its success was inevitable. The Eagles are a critically acclaimed group that is seemingly the favorite band of every dad in America.

Another veteran, Garth Brooks, had the second best-selling album, “The Ultimate Hits,” going 5x platinum. There were only four new tracks out of 34, but one of them, “More Than A Memory,” got a lot of airtime on country radio. Like The Eagles, Brooks has an older fan base, which clearly isn’t a bad thing. After all, is a fan of The Eagles or Garth Brooks more likely to go on YouTube or Limewire to get their fix or the good ol’ record store?

Linkin Park’s first studio album in almost five years, “Minutes To Midnight,” sold 625,000 copies in its first week in May, and reached the two million mark by the end of
the year.

The fourth and final artist to go multi-platinum thanks more to an established fan base than marketing gimmicks is Alicia Keys. “As I Am” has already sold three million in just two months of circulation. Keys’s hit single “No One” seemed to sweep the country off its feet, being played on nearly every radio station and in every store. “As I Am” did benefit from extremely heavy promotion on MTV, including ads that Keys did with John Mayer. The fact that Starbucks decided to start carrying the album didn’t hurt either.

The three albums that owe much of their sales to TV promotion are Carrie Underwood’s “Carnival Ride,” the “High School Musical 2” soundtrack, and “Meet Miley Cyrus: Hannah Montana 2.” There is no doubt that the American Idol exposure has been invaluable to Underwood’s success.

“American Idol has consumed American culture. Pop culture has prominence. You hear more people talking about American Idol than Iraq or changes in education,” says Fortuné. “American Idol has literally changed the game for Clay, Ruben, Fantasia, Underwood and Clarkson.”

More people voted during the 2005 American Idol season than the last presidential election. All things considered, with 500 million people voting on Idol each season, two million sales for Underwood is not hard to believe.

The “High School Musical 2” and Hannah Montana sales aren’t surprising. Both albums went 2x platinum, and Disney knows how to market to young demographics. “‘High School Musical’ has a cult following of kids and preteens who aspire to get to high school,” said Fortuné, who notes that the cross-promotion is not that different from Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney having to go on train tours across the country to promote their musicals.

Josh Groban struck gold this year with another established approach, the concept album. Groban’s Christmas-themed album, “Noel,” sold over four million copies from Oct. 9 to Dec. 13, by far a larger success in the U.S. than his previous three records.

The success of the year’s final multi-platinum album, “Graduation” by Kanye West, owes itself to a manipulative marketing scheme, but an ingenious one nonetheless. West’s “rivalry” with 50 Cent resulted in both artists laughing straight to the bank. West had the year’s highest first-week sales at 957,000, while Curtis sold 691,000. According to Billboard.com, this was the first time since Nielson Sound Scan began keeping data in 1991 that two albums debuting in the same week sold over 600,000 copies.

The music industry is constantly evolving. Even though there’s no “Thriller” rival on the horizon, there will always be a demand for music. “It’s tight now, but the music industry will find a way to pull into people’s dollars again,” said Fortuné.

While 2007 evidenced that the usual formulas to marketing music are still effective, this hasn’t stopped some from getting creative. While downloading and digital technology are hurting music sales overall, many artists are using new media to their advantage, setting up YouTube channels and Myspace pages as a vehicle to get discovered.

Look no further than 17-year-old rapper Soulja Boy, unknown until he uploaded his song “Crank That” and an accompanying video on the two Web sites. Soulja Boy went on to sign with Interscope Records and the single went multi-platinum. Soulja Boy’s success, which may now appear as a joke and merely a footnote to 2007, may prove historic. It can carrying tremendous implications for the industry’s future. “Myspace shows there’s another dimension for music to break through,” said Fortuné. “It is an example of how the information age has impact on how music sells.”