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Sales sliding again: U2 to the rescue?

The nation’s music retailers are gleeful over the public’s early response to new albums by Eminem, U2 and other high-profile acts, but is it going to be enough to reverse a recent downturn that’s threatening to make 2004 a disappointing sales year?

Until September, it looked as if this could be the year the record business turned around the slump it’s been in for several years. Sales were up nearly 10% over 2003, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

But the upward swing started tailing off, and for the last several weeks, sales have been down compared to the same period last year. As of last week, that 10% improvement had slipped to a mere 3% uptick from a year ago.

Now the question is whether U2’s new “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” -- which some say may sell over 800,000 copies its first week -- along with the continuing strength of Eminem’s “Encore” and other superstar releases, will stop the slide.

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“There are so many big guns lined up over just two or three weeks,” says Billboard director of charts Geoff Mayfield. “Last year you had more Pied Piper records out in September and October, and some of those down weeks [this year] might have been different if some of these albums had come to stores sooner. And more artists would have had a chance to see a No. 1 album.”

Case in point: Shania Twain’s “Greatest Hits” sold 530,000 copies its first week, normally more than enough for a No. 1 chart debut. But because “Encore” was released three days early and posted sales of 711,000 in that brief time, Twain came in at No. 2. That same week, Toby Keith’s “Greatest Hits 2" moved 435,000 copies. But altogether, that still wasn’t enough to boost the week’s sales total above last year’s.

“You’d think a week that saw new albums from Eminem, Toby and Shania would have to be a week in which the streak of downward comps would end,” Mayfield says. Even though the Eminem, Destiny’s Child and Lil Jon albums, all released ahead of their official street dates, registered significant increases over the previous week’s totals after a full week in stores, last week’s overall album sales total was still down 10% from the same week last year.

-- Randy Lewis

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