Garth Brooks and the Beatles are the top two sellers of the SoundScan era (1991-2008), according to new data released by Nielsen SoundScan. Brooks has sold more than 68 million albums and the Beatles more than 57 million.
What do they have in common besides they each have millions of fans (in the case of the Beatles, it's probably billions), they both recorded for Capitol Records and neither has put out a full album of new music in years and years? How about the fact that neither act allows their music to be sold digitally.
They are among the few mainstream artists who still refuse for their music to be sold via iTunes or any other digital outlets. Among the other holdouts are AC/DC and Kid Rock (although he's recently made some moves in that direction).
It recently seemed that the Beatles were poised to cross the digital divide: Its holding company, Apple Corp., had settled its lawsuit against iTunes parent Apple (the suit had nothing to do with downloads) and there were reports that the catalog was being remastered-sources guessed this was a move toward digital availability-- then nothing happened.
Both Kid Rock and AC/CD made headlines in 2008 over their refusal to go digital because, like Brooks, they want their albums sold in their entirety, without having singles cherry picked randomly.
For the most part, iTunes refuses to sell music that way (artists such as Madonna and Metallica put up fights over this practice, but eventually gave in). Other digital music services are more likely to comply with the artists' wishes, but their market share wouldn't provide the artists with any kind of wide digital penetration. For example, Kid Rock recently made his platinum-plus album, "Rock N Roll Jesus," available via Rhapsody for a few months, but fans had to buy the album in its entirety and couldn't just pluck the mega-hit "All Summer Long" for purchase. According to Billboard, only 3,000 of the more than 2 million "Rock N Roll Jesus" copies bought were digital.
Does it hurt these artists not to join the not-so-new world and offer their music this way? It depends. For both Brooks and the Beatles, who are trying to shift catalog titles to new fans, there must be some loss there. According to Nielsen SoundScan, more than 54 million catalog albums (i.e.: non-current releases) sold digitally in 2008.
At MacWorld this week, Apple announced that later this Spring, iTunes will begin offering variable pricing for singles: instead of all tunes being 99 cents, they will be tiered at 69 cents, 99 cents and $1.29. That's something the labels have been angling for and the move shows that Apple is willing to change.
Some label executives we've talked to believe that an artist, not iTunes, should get to decide how an album is offered: if the act is fine with fans buying the CD track by track, that's great, but if the artist wants a CD sold only as a complete work, iTunes should honor those wishes and offer it only that way.
In the meantime, digital album sales accounted for 15% of all album sales in 2008 (the rate is growing approximately 5% per year). I know you can do the math, but in a world where every day we hear that the physical CD is dead, let's look at that figure again... if only 15% of CD sales are digital, that means that 85% are still physical. In other words, for every ONE album sold digitally, SEVEN are sold physically. Yes, the physical CD will eventually go away, but it's not happening in 2009 and at this rate, the Beatles, Brooks, AC/DC and Kid Rock can certainly stand to hold out. We'll see who ultimately blinks first.