If there was a poster child for the music industry in 2011—a year in which album sales ticked up for the first time since 2004—there's no question it'd be Adele, the British soul singer who has sold six million copies of her sophomore album 21 since its release last February. But the records largely responsible for this uptick were not released in 2011—most of them not in this decade.
Catalog titles—records released more than 18 months ago—sold almost 9 percent better in 2011 than in 2010. And of those, "deep catalog" titles—ones released at least three years ago—did even better, rising 12 percent, according to numbers released last week by Nielsen SoundScan. New releases, on the other hand, sold 4 percent worse in 2011 than 2010.
This isn't normal: Catalog titles don't usually account for such a large chunk of album sales. Dave Bakula, SoundScan's senior vice president of analytics, says catalog titles typically made up about 40 percent of sales, but accounted for 46 percent of the albums sold last year. "I think we're at a place now where catalog is probably at its biggest share [of sales]," says Bakula.
So does that mean Grandpa's right—they really don't make 'em like they used to? Not necessarily. Brick-and-mortar stores and online retailers—and anyone else selling hard copies of records—moved more copies of catalog records thanks to steep discounts on wholesale costs from major labels. Ballard's Sonic Boom, for example, is selling Public Enemy's 1990 classic, Fear of a Black Planet, for $5.99—$4 cheaper than on iTunes. But the more expensive digital copies (who thought we'd ever be saying that?) of catalog records grew even faster than physical sales, climbing nearly 20 percent year-over-year.
"What we're seeing is that catalog proves its value over time in the sense that boomers are buying it, replacing CDs with digital files," says Gartner analyst Mike McGuire, who follows the music industry. "But increasingly, a lot of young folks are finding [catalog records]."
Higher sales numbers on lower prices have been good for industry morale and for gargantuan record stores like Queen Anne's Silver Platters, which has acres of shelves to fill. But it hasn't been as beneficial for boutique record stores. Jason Hughes, owner of Sonic Boom, says that he'll sell catalog records like Black Planet for a pittance to stay competitive, but he's not selling enough to make up for the richer margins of a record which retails above $10.
Bakula says whether or not the low-price catalog model is sustainable is a question that "both the retailers and content owners are going to have to answer" in 2012.