As usual at this time of year, the record industry's ears are starting to tune in to cash registers ringing up music sales in the pre-Christmas buying season.
What's different this year is that many are thinking not of Christmas present, but Christmas future.
Among the artists who won't be putting their albums out before New Year's Day, as originally planned, are Van Halen, Eric Clapton, Don Henley, the Beastie Boys, Bonnie Raitt, Seal and Madonna. All the albums are still in progress, but rather than rush to finish them for the holiday season, as they might have in the past, the participants have simply postponed the releases.
That decision reflects a new thinking, dictated by the slowing sales growth in recent years, increased difficulty in getting radio exposure for new releases, and snowballing competition for consumer attention from TV, movies, video, computer software and the Internet.
It now takes longer than ever to build a hit, and releasing an album in October or November with eyes on making millions of wish lists can be very risky. An album that fails to meet expectations can be written off as a failure--just ask Pearl Jam and R.E.M., who went through that process last year.
"There are very few artists now who can put out a record in November and hit a home run by Christmas," says Ron Stone, co-president of the Gold Mountain management firm, whose roster includes Raitt and the Beastie Boys. "Look at the big artists who came out with records last year and didn't hit that home run they expected. It was a cold shower. No one's cocky about that anymore."
For music retailers, having those big releases coming after Christmas is the best present they could ask for.
"In January, the consumer is looking for something new," says Gary Arnold, vice president of marketing for the national Best Buy chain. "They get audio components for Christmas or gift certificates they want to use, so that's a great time to have something out. And it becomes a healthier industry as they release over the course of 12 months rather than try to cram everything into the fourth quarter."
Stone is happy to be part of the trend.
"It's not by design that the Beasties and Bonnie won't be out by Christmas," he says. "They simply won't be ready until next year. But I'm kind of relieved. Before Christmas there will be a lot of product out and a lot of noise and banging of drums and some albums might get lost."
Even the November release of Paul Simon's album, "The Capeman," is being geared not so much to Christmas shopping but to the opening of the Broadway musical the album is based on, planned for January.
"Many people need to hear not just one but two or three songs from an album in many cases now before they'll plunk down $16.98," says Jeff Gold, executive vice president and general manager of Warner Bros. Records.
The Foo Fighters' "The Colour and the Shape" is a perfect example. Released more than four months ago, the album dipped to No. 90 on the Billboard pop album chart, but now with its second single, "Everlong," getting MTV and radio exposure, it has bounced back up to No. 48, with sales last week of 21,000. That, say both manager Stone and Capitol Records president Gary Gersh, fits the strategy set out when the album was released.
Says Stone: "It used to be that the cycle for an album was eight to 10 months. Now it's 12 to 18. Used to be a sprint. Now it's a marathon. By releasing in January, you now have a whole year to get it on the radio and all that."