Scrooged! Tis the Season of Weak CD Sales

Still deep in the red after Black Friday, the music industry is facing its steepest annual losses to date, with hopes for a year-end holiday turnaround all but Scrooged.

While album sales for the week ending Sunday were up 19% over the previous week, the Thanksgiving week total of 14 million albums trails 2006's take by 18%. So far in 2007, 415.7 million albums have been sold, down 14% from last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

"This won't be made up by the end of the year," predicts Geoff Mayfield, Billboard's director of charts. "We've yet to have a week where album sales have beaten those of the same week the prior year."

Last year ended with album sales down 4.9%. The loss shrank to 1.2% with the inclusion of "track-equivalent albums," in which 10 downloaded tracks are counted as one album. Though digital sales are up 46% this year, the combined album and track-equivalent sales are lagging 2006 by 8.5%.

One reason: a dearth of superstar titles.

"I'm always one who complains there are too many releases in the last quarter, but we finally had one where perhaps a few more big names would have helped," Mayfield says. "There were no huge releases for Thanksgiving week."

Instead, Josh Groban's seven-week-old Noel rose to claim Billboard's No. 1 spot after selling 405,000 copies, and the highest debut is Jordin Sparks' self-titled disc, at No. 10 with 119,000, the lowest start ever for an American Idol winner. Last Thanksgiving, five debuts cracked the top 10, including discs by Chris Daughtry, The Beatles, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac and Jay-Z.

"Music may be feeling the effects of the TV writers' strike," says Daily Variety associate editor Phil Gallo. "You don't have late-night shows promoting new albums or songs getting placed on new shows."

Dwindling record stores also have hampered sales, he says, and album retail space in big-box chains has been shrinking in favor of DVDs.

Albums by U2, Mariah Carey, Usher, Green Day and other hot sellers were expected this fall but pushed to next year. The good news?

"What's causing pain in 2007 could be a big gain in 2008, especially if they come early, giving ammo to a part of the year that's often fallow," Mayfield says.

The numbers shouldn't leave the impression that music isn't thriving, he says. Piracy drains profits, and the industry is struggling to calculate other means of music consumption. In 2008, Billboard will introduce a chart ranking artist popularity based on aggregate sales of albums, singles, ringtones and DVDs.

"People are more engaged than ever in music, whether through downloads, peer-to-peer, streaming, ringtones, fan clubs or tours," Mayfield says. "The industry is still finding out how to measure and monetize these avid interests."