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Decemberists' latest debuts at No. 14 despite delay of CD release

'The Hazards of Love' sells 18,000 copies via digital download, giving record stores a chill.

March 26, 2009|Todd Martens

The latest release from the Decemberists landed at No. 14 on the album charts this week despite a sizable handicap: It wasn't available on CD.

EMI's Capitol Record opted to sell "The Hazards of Love" as a near-exclusive via Apple Inc.'s iTunes Store for a week. Illustrating the growing viability of the digital marketplace, the experiment resulted in iTunes shoppers' downloading about 18,000 copies during the week ended March 22, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

The iTunes sales and an additional 1,000 copies sold on vinyl put "The Hazards of Love" solidly in the top 20 before the CD hit stores Tuesday.

"It's a real paradigm shift," said Matt Wishnow, who runs the online music store "Now, because of leaks and intentional distribution of either artwork or music, the excitement is ripe way before release date. It puts labels and artists in a very challenging position, but creates opportunities for them to monetize the pre-street-date event."

"The Hazards of Love," a 17-song suite with fantastical lyrics and a genre-hopping sound, is the fifth album from the Decemberists, an orchestrated pop band from Portland, Ore.

The band's last release, 2006's "The Crane Wife," sold 26,000 copies during the first week, 6,000 of which were digital downloads. The album went on to sell 292,000 copies, including 69,000 digital.

Releasing an album via digital outlets before a physical release isn't new. The Beggars Group in 2007 released the latest from English rapper Dizzee Rascal as a download-only, and recent albums from Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead were released online weeks before hitting retail shelves.

This month, Universal Music Group's Interscope Records rushed the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "It's Blitz!" to digital outlets ahead of the CD's release next Tuesday. In two weeks, it has sold 18,000 downloads.

The surprising success of the efforts is opening some eyes in the music industry -- and making some retailers worry that digital outlets will get first crack at more and more new music.

"It's starting to feel like when vinyl was being forced away and the CD was taking over," said Terry Currier, who runs indie retailer Music Millennium in Portland. "It got to a point where our customers couldn't depend on the vinyl being out for street dates, and just converted over to the CD."

Howard Handler, EMI's head of marketing for North America, cautioned against reading too much into the move. He stressed that a digital-first release is a rarity and not part of EMI's game plan.

"It wouldn't be right to draw any sweeping conclusions about it," Handler said. "This was right for this artist and this release and this set of fans."

Jason Colton, who co-manages the Decemberists with Ron Laffitte at Red Light Management, said they were aware there may be some push-back from retailers about the one-week digital exclusive.

"We looked at it very closely and balanced any resistance with what we thought was best for this record and the band's career," Colton said. "The Decemberists have built up considerable goodwill at retail, and we were sure to super-serve independent retailers with a vinyl release timed to the iTunes exclusive."

But with downloads outselling vinyl 18 to 1 during that week, music stores had to wait until the CD release to cash in on the new album.

For example, at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, independent music buyer Brad Schelden said the store sold about a dozen vinyl copies during the initial week. In comparison, Schelden said the store was on pace to sell 125 copies on CD over the next week.


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