Reason Time... Reggae Album Sales Are Low - But What Does This Mean?
03/13/2014 by Angus Taylor
Reason Time... an occasional column by Angus Taylor. All his opinions his own. All research subject to deadlines!
On March 1st the Jamaica Observer published yet another article about album sales in reggae being low - based on Billboard Chart positions versus Nielsen SoundScan figures for the USA and Canada.
Despite debuting at number one on the Billboard chart Sean Paul’s new album Full Frequency had sold just 2,160 copies. This is contrasted with his hit album Dutty Rock which “opened with 65,000 copies in November 2002"
At the time of writing Tarrus Riley's Love Situation had sold 1,126 copies, Gyptian's Sex Love & Reggae had sold 3,899, while Shaggy's Out of Many, One Music had 2,777.
This has fuelled the usual “is reggae dead?” questions in the international community and the ongoing narrative for the Jamaican media of “when is our music going to be accepted wholesale by America?”
But as usual the article simply gave us figures without contextual analysis - figures that raise more questions than answers.
#1 How reliable a picture do Nielsen figures give these days?
#2 How do on demand streaming services like Spotify or Pandora, where people “rent” rather than buy music, fit into this? Are they popular enough in the US to have an effect?
#3 Isn't the question about whether people consume entire albums in music generally, as much as whether reggae is selling well? For example if I buy an entire album bar two tracks I think are filler on iTunes, should that count as a sale?
#4 Have albums ever been that relevant in reggae which traditionally used the single as currency? And how do vinyl sales, which have been increasing, colour the picture?
#5 Bar a few notable exceptions has the USA and Canada ever been that strong a seller for reggae compared to other territories? Particularly modern reggae where buying habits may not include buying whole albums?
#6 We’re always hearing about sales in the US - what about sales in Jamaica? Surely the problem starts at home?
#7 Piracy has long been a part of reggae in the form of radio, pressed up CDs, DVDs and soundtapes. Mass file-sharing has made consumers’ money-saving tactics more destructive for sales. But this has been the case for years now. The debate is moving on, as streaming attempts to plug the hole created by piracy – so isn’t pointing to album sales and comparing them to when Sean Paul went gold somewhat behind the curve?
#8 So the charts don’t give a reliable picture of sales? Likewise this has been the case for a long time.
At the risk of getting technical, Nielsen categorises music sales statistics into album sales (both physical sales and digital downloads), digital downloads of songs, streamed songs, and radio play of songs. Focussing on any one of these statistics in isolation, such as album sales, can give a misleading picture of the state of the industry. The Billboard charts attempt to make sense of all these formats by using statistical weighting adjustments to convert these sales and plays into “points” in order to produce lists of the top albums, songs and artists of the year, both overall and by genre.
While major label artists are not seeing strong album sales, reggae and other niche genres have been progressive in embracing the developments in technology which advance the collapse of the music industry’s traditional hierarchy. As the roles of artists, producers, labels, distributors and promoters blur, smaller labels and self-produced releases become more prolific. Unless these releases are actively registered with Nielsen they will not be included in their annual music sales statistics (which incurs a fee for sales tracking, although it is free to register radio airplay tracking). Additionally Nielsen only looks at a limited number of retail sources to capture sales data, meaning that the statistics represent a partial view of total sales.
This is not to say that there isn’t a painful transition going on for the reggae industry but this is true of the whole music industry. The future of the album is doubt – as anything more than a package from which songs can be downloaded or streamed as we please. Royalties for streaming and YouTube may not be an adequate replacement for physical sales. But let’s not keep parroting incomplete figures as an excuse to say “woe is reggae” when something more complicated is going on.
One thing’s for sure - new ways of generating funds for reggae music are needed. Next time I will look at alternative financing methods.