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Breaking the Records

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s not only the movie industry that’s enjoying “Titanic” success this year. Thanks to the multimillion-selling soundtrack from the biggest-grossing movie in history, the record industry is enjoying a robust growth in album sales.

The mostly instrumental James Horner score has topped the national sales chart for 15 consecutive weeks and so dominated the record marketplace this year that it has pushed releases by superstars such as Madonna and Pearl Jam into the background.

“No. 2 is the virtual No. 1 these days because No. 1 is no longer within the realm of mortals,” says Bob Merlis, senior vice president of corporate communications at Warner Bros. Records. “We couldn’t [get there] with Madonna or Van Halen or Eric Clapton.”

“Titanic” has sold nearly $100 million worth of albums this year--nearly 7.5 million copies, including another 268,000 last week. That’s almost twice the total of the year’s No. 2 album, Celine Dion’s “Titanic"-related album, “Let’s Talk About Love,” which, like the soundtrack, includes the singer’s “Titanic” theme, “My Heart Will Go On.”

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The Dion album, which had already sold more than 2.5 million copies before sales of the soundtrack began to skyrocket in early January, has sold another 3.8 million this year.

Driven by the soundtrack, which long ago replaced “Chariots of Fire” as the best-selling instrumental film score of all time, total U.S. album sales reached 160 million units during the first three months of 1998. That’s up 7.6% for the same period a year ago (148 million units).

The combined 10.2 million units sold by the soundtrack and Dion albums during the first quarter are responsible for the vast majority of that growth, allowing the record industry to continue its rebound from a mid-'90s stagnation. After two years of minimal gains, album sales jumped 5.7% in 1997.

But retailers aren’t about to decry “Titanic’s” dominance. They say “Titanic” pulls buyers who wouldn’t normally be there into their stores.

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“ ‘Titanic’ is the leader that has taken us to this growth,” says Mike Shalett, CEO of SoundScan, which monitors U.S. record sales. “But I don’t think for one minute anybody should say, ‘Oh, yeah, but without it. . . .’

“No, no. We’ve sold a lot of records. I’m very upbeat.”

Among genres, the big winners were rap and soundtracks, which were up 16% and 14%, respectively. Sales of hard rock records were up 11%, while alternative rock sales were down 12% and country was off 7%.

The rap surge was led by ’97 holdover albums by Sean “Puffy” Combs, Will Smith and Mase, as well as new collections by Silkk the Shocker and C-Murder.

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Also selling well are albums by an eclectic mix of other artists--from newer releases by Madonna and Eric Clapton to older titles by Savage Garden, Garth Brooks, the Backstreet Boys and Will Smith.

“The [“Titanic”] soundtrack has created an excitement that has led people back to retail, and once they’re there, they’re seeing a lot of exciting merchandise,” says Scott Levin, director of marketing for the Musicland Group. “Once we get them in the store, the hooks are there.”

Among the success stories:

* The teen idol vocal group Backstreet Boys’ U.S. album debut, “Backstreet Boys,” continued to pick up steam after its August release and, matching the “Titanic” and Dion records, spent the entire first quarter in the Top 10, selling 1.3 million copies.

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* The Australian synth-pop band Savage Garden’s year-old debut album, “Savage Garden,” fueled by the Top 5 single “Truly Madly Deeply,” completed a long climb into the Top 10 in late January and stayed put, selling 1.2 million copies.

* R&B; sensation Usher’s “My Way,” the leader among a strong group of urban music records, sold 1.2 million copies, spending the entire quarter in the Top 20.

* A 1996 album, the rock group Matchbox 20’s “Yourself or Someone Like You,” also spent the quarter in the Top 20, selling nearly 1.2 million copies.

* The confectionary Spice Girls’ “Spiceworld” and country superstar Brooks’ “Sevens” also sold 1 million copies or more during the first three months of the year.

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“Look at the diversity,” says Shalett, referring to the quarter’s hit makers. “I’m constantly reminding people that what we’re offering the consumer is this wide variety [among the bestsellers]. It’s this constant smorgasbord--something for everybody.”

Of this year’s superstar releases, Madonna’s “Ray of Light” has sold an impressive 1.1 million copies since its release March 3. The album sold almost 371,000 copies during its first week in stores, the highest initial-week total for a solo female artist since SoundScan began monitoring U.S. record sales in 1991.

But it still fell some 106,000 short of “Titanic” that week, illustrating the challenge of trying to attain the chart-topping position this year.

Pearl Jam’s “Yield” also fell far short of knocking “Titanic” out of the No. 1 spot, but nevertheless sold about 900,000 copies during the quarter and should easily surpass the disappointing sales of the band’s 1996 album, “No Code,” which topped out at 1.1 million.

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What will sink “Titanic”?

Industry observers are optimistic about releases coming in the next few weeks from the Dave Matthews Band, LeAnn Rimes, the Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage and Master P, but nobody seems willing to pick a favorite.

“What happened with Madonna is an indication that nothing out there is a sure thing to dislodge ‘Titanic,’ ” says Geoff Mayfield, charts editor at Billboard magazine. “This thing is selling at a rate where it’s really feeding itself.”


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