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Off the Record Charts

Driven by marketing, more acts are achieving first-week sales of 1 million. Will the new Backstreet Boys album be next?


The new Backstreet Boys album hits stores today, but the record industry has been caught up for weeks in trying to predict how many copies "Black & Blue" will sell during its first week in stores. The fact that the estimates start at 1 million underscores how dramatically first-week sales have mushroomed this year.

Previously, only two albums--Garth Brooks' "Double Live" in 1998 and the Backstreet Boys' "Millennium" in 1999--had ever topped that figure, but four records have reached that goal in the last seven months. The high mark was the 2.4 million copies registered in late March by 'N Sync's "No Strings Attached."

Why the sudden increase of records achieving what not long ago was considered an impossible dream?

Part of the answer is the overall growth of the music business, which soared from sales of $7.5 billion in the U.S. in 1990 to $14.5 billion last year, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America.

But mostly it's marketing. The industry has responded to the booming media and public attention on first-week sales figures, which in turn ratchets up their importance to artists and their managers.

Those ubiquitous Backstreet Boys-Burger King ads and special MTV programs that function as infomercials for new albums illustrate the powerful avenues of exposure that record companies are increasingly exploiting. They are just two elements in sophisticated, multi-pronged campaigns designed to get pop fans into stores faster than ever.

"They're marketing new albums almost the way movies are," says Jim Donio, executive vice president of the National Assn. of Recording Merchandisers, a trade group representing thousands of music retailers. "The release of a new album is like a major event, with print advertising, MTV and TV appearances on Jay Leno, Rosie O'Donnell, David Letterman. The companies are taking a much more integrated media marketing approach now."

When and where those efforts pay off in a million-plus first week still can't be programmed.

"It requires a certain kind of artist and a certain kind of buyer," says Hilary Rosen, president of the RIAA. "But when those two meet, it's kismet."

At the moment, those buyers are young--teens and preteens who have both the time and disposable income to snatch up new albums the second they go on sale. The acts with the biggest buzz are either teen pop or rap-metal. But no one is ruling out another million-first-week album out of another genre, as country superstar Brooks proved possible when "Double Live" sold 1.08 million copies in its first week in 1998.

The big variable in all this remains the buzz, an elusive quality that the RIAA's Rosen admits hasn't been distilled to a science, and probably never will be.

"If we could scientifically create the buzz," says Rosen, "it would happen every time."

Yet record companies have become more scientific than they were 20, 10 or even five years ago in the timing of the myriad elements that go into promoting new releases. A key piece of information that's getting unprecedented emphasis today is the release date.

"One of the weaknesses in the business for years was the fact that street-date awareness among the public was very poor," says Bob Feterl, a Tower Records buyer. "We finally realized that and have stepped up efforts to make sure that people know."

Retailers do it in partnership with the labels via in-store promotions, print and broadcast ad campaigns for the most highly anticipated new albums. Stores increasingly stay open late the night before so the most ardent fans can buy an album the moment it goes on sale at midnight, another way to generate the gotta-have-it-now factor.

Retailers, artists and record companies also have exploited the growth of the Internet. All routinely tie in to multiple Web sites to increase consumer awareness of release dates, adding up to a pre-release promotional assault that's inescapable.

The Backstreet Boys-Burger King and 'N Sync/Britney Spears-McDonald's tie-ins are perfect examples of pop music's full assimilation into the mainstream, which has created more promotional opportunities than ever.

The concentration of the record business into fewer, and larger, corporate hands in the last decade also puts an increasing premium on out-of-the-gate performance.

"That first-week sales figure is [the record companies'] report card," says Bob Bell, a buyer for the Wherehouse chain.

Credit--or blame--for the report-card mentality belongs at least in part to media focus on dazzling first-week sales.

"Why do people care?" says Capitol Records President Roy Lott. "Clearly it's because other people care. It's not like we make more money on first-week sales than third-week sales. . . . A key part of that attention on the first week is the media attention to it."

Record execs help pave their way to an A on their report card if they can get MTV on board in a big way.

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