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Retail snapshot: Sara Bareilles has a career high during a historic low; Best Buy waving bye to CDs?

September 16, 2010 |  8:21 am


For those watching the charts of late, the news has been somewhat grim, although that's as expected. Before the onslaught of fall and holiday releases begins, sales have been relatively slow at the top of the chart. Couple that with a perennially depressed music climate; -- industry trade Billboard has had to report for the third time this year that sales have hit a record low.

With 4.83 million total sales last week, Billboard notes that the week ending Sept. 12 was the slowest ever in the SoundScan era. That beats the record low of 4.95 million set earlier this summer. Now, one of the largest outlets for major-label product -- and one of the industry leaders in driving the price of the CD below $9.99 -- has declared that it will continue its trend of devoting less floor space to CDs. 

The news was somewhat expected, as stories out of this year's National Assn. of Recording Merchandisers trade convention continued to speculate that mass retailers would further curtail their music offerings. On Wednesday, Billboard's Glenn Peoples pointed to an Investors.com story that referred to a recent Best Buy investors call in which Best Buy executive Brian Dunn was quoted as saying the "CD section in particular will shrink in space allotment" in favor of higher-margin items.

Best Buy isn't alone. Wal-Mart also has been gradually cutting the amount of new music it stocks. As CD sales dip, Apple's iTunes store has become the dominant retail player -- accounting for about 28% of the market, according to Billboard estimates. Sales at "non-traditional" outlets -- the category Nielsen SoundScan has created for all digital, venue and mail-order purchases -- hit an all-time high in 2009, topping the 100 million mark for the first time. 

Sales at mass-merchant retailers, which include Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart, have been steadily dipping. SoundScan reported in 2009 that mass-merchant sales declined for the second year in a row. The sector had reported growth from 2002 through 2006, often using new releases as a "loss leader," a heavily discounted item designed to get foot traffic into the store. 

Earlier indications from Billboard's retail guru Ed Christman have indicated that the CD may no longer even be useful as a loss leader, at least those of the non-superstar variety. The largest Best Buy stories carried up to 20,000 CD titles as recently as two years ago -- a number Billboard noted Wednesday had dipped in half, with most stores carrying about 5,000 titles. 

The climate has allowed for fresh faces at the top of the U.S. pop chart. This week's tally was topped by noted songbird Sara Bareilles, whose “Kaleidoscope Heart” opened with 90,000 copies sold. It's a high-water mark for Bareilles, who rose to fame with the heavily licensed 2007 hit "Love Song," and her debut, "Little Voice," has sold about 996,000 copies to date. 

Meanwhile, the most popular artist in the U.S., if one is to go by BigChampagne's "Ultimate Chart," which combines sales, airplay and social-networking data, is Katy Perry. Her "Teenage Dream" is selling well but far from gangbusters. In three weeks, the album has sold 339,000 copies. The artist isn't going anyway anytime soon: Singles from the album, for instance, have sold well over 5 million copies.

Bareilles is farther down on BigChampagne's tally, resting at No. 62. That's not a slight, as her supporters will no doubt champion her as an album artist and one who certainly isn't the YouTube darling that Perry is. That should be good news, perhaps, for the surviving independent stores and fans of artists who haven't been showcased on, say, the recent MTV Video Music Awards. 

Currently, acts such as Mumford & Sons and the Arcade Fire are both in the top 20, artists overshadowed at stores such as Best Buy by Linkin Parks, Trey Songz and others. Yet as CDs are falling out of favor with our largest retailers, the top of the charts is no longer a clear-cut popularity contest. 

-- Todd Martens 

Photo: Sara Bareilles. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times