Merge co-founder on Arcade Fire's No. 1 debut: 'The whole chart thing is kind of like sports'
It took only 21 years, but Merge Records finally accomplished something label co-founder Laura Ballance never thought was possible: A No. 1 record on the U.S. pop charts. Yet after a modest, do-it-yourself beginning in the late '80s in Chapel Hill, N.C. -- running the label while performing to nearly empty clubs with her band Superchunk -- Ballance is definitely not one who's going to gloat.
"The whole chart thing is kind of like sports," she said Wednesday. "The need to have a ranking is kind of meaningless. I’m more like, ‘It did good? That’s great.’ "
The third effort from orchestral pop outfit the Arcade Fire sold 156,000 copies to debut at No. 1 on Billboard's pop chart, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The figure builds upon the start of the band's last effort, 2007's "Neon Bible," which bowed at No. 2 with 92,000 sold. At a time when the close of each year brings another double-digit decline in CD sales, the Arcade Fire is one of the rare bands that continues to expand its audience, and is doing so with complex and thematic albums.
Yet the Arcade Fire is also a band that tours rarely, and has little interest in self-promotion. For instance, Merge and the band are selling a download of "The Suburbs," bundling the digital release with an interactive digital picture book. Artwork and lyrics were synchronized to each individual song, and clicking on the images will take users to links connected to each track, be it the Wikipedia pages of suburban Texas towns or YouTube music videos. Users can learn, for instance, which Arcade Fire song was influenced by Foreigner.
With labels and artists trying to find inventive ways to bolster album sales, such an unique approach to packaging a digital album would seem tailor-made for a marketing campaign. Merge, however, made zero attempt to promote the innovation outside its website.
"Nobody knew about it," Ballance admits."The band are fans of doing things under the radar and letting people discover it. We did not promote it as a feature. I think it’s cool. It’s even awesome for a little karaoke."
But "The Suburbs" certainly raked in the digital sales. Although SoundScan doesn't break down digital sales by retailer, a whopping 97,000 digital copies of "The Suburbs" were purchased. Many will certainly draw the same conclusion as Billboard, noting that "The Suburbs" surely benefited from a week-long promotion at Amazon.com, which sold the album for $3.99. Such low-priced offers are nothing new for Amazon, and acts as big as U2 have been sold by the online retailer at that price point.
"Unfortunately, that’s not up to us," Ballance said of Amazon's decision to lowball the price of "The Suburbs." Yet it certainly raises concerns about the value of the album, and what consumers will view as a reasonable price.
"Devaluing music is something that concerns me greatly," Ballance said. "But it’s hard to draw a hard line on it. At this point, people can download music for free if they really want to. If you’re trying to get people to buy music, people who wouldn’t otherwise, maybe that’s the way to do it. Just to make it so cheap that it tips the scale.
"It’s tricky," Ballance continued."I find the resistance I had five years ago to music getting cheap is being broken down over the years by relentless pressure. People want to pay less."
Amazon has since raised the price to $7.99, and Apple's iTunes store continues to sell the album at its standard $9.99 price. Sales of digital albums remain one of the industry's growth sectors. For the first half of 2010, downloadable album sales were up 13.7% compared to the same period last year.
No matter the price, the Arcade Fire manages to turn the release of each album into an event. Like Radiohead, fan anticipation for the act seems to build when the Arcade Fire is dormant.
Los Angeles audiences may still have to wait a bit to sing along to the Arcade Fire in person. The band recently performed at Lollapalooza in Chicago, but has not yet unveiled a full U.S. tour. For much of September, the band will be in Europe.
"They’re in a luxurious position," Ballance said. "When I think about the struggles Superchunk has been through, going across the county over and over in a van and playing to 50 people, it’s a big contrast. You have to hit towns more often when you don’t have the impact that the Arcade Fire do."
Merge is definitely making an impression in 2010. The label has had four top 10 albums in its 21-year history, three of which have been released this year. The Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" joins Spoon's "Transference" and She & Him's "Volume 2" as some of the label's hottest-selling efforts.
What to make of the sudden success? "It's insane. Something has been upset," Ballance said.
Ballance's Superchunk, in which label co-owner Mac McCaughan is the lead singer, will release a new album, "Majesty Shredding," on Sept. 14. It's the act's first effort since 2001, and Ballance said today's market is making it nearly impossible to anticipate how the album will sell.
"Things are so different now." she said. "I cannot even begin to imagine how many Superchunk records we’ll sell. It could be nobody cares because we’re an old band, or it could be that indie rock is now the new-whatever."
-- Todd Martens
Images, from top: The Arcade Fire's Win Butler at Madison Square Garden (Getty Images); screen shot of the Arcade Fire's digital booklet. (Arcade Fire / Merge Records / Vincent Morisset)
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