Remember the year 2000? When the world stopped panicking about Y2K and N’Sync topped the Billboard charts, selling 2.42 million copies of their sophomore record No Strings Attached in just one week? Oh, what a difference a decade makes. Today we scoff at Y2K hysteria, and artists rarely (read: never) see those kinds of astronomical sales. But on a positive note, this means that smaller acts can climb their way up the charts, and in 2011 a number of indie artists are finding their way to the top—albeit with significantly smaller sales figures.
It was California-based alt-rockers Cake who kicked off the year of unlikely chart-toppers. Showroom of Compassion—the band’s first record in more than ten years—debuted at the top of the Billboard Top 200, giving them their first Number 1 album of their career. The Decemberists followed with The King Is Dead, bumping Cake from the top spot to earn their first number one record. Then came Amos Lee, who earned his first number one album with his third full-length Mission Bell.
We’d love to tell you that the news is all good—that smaller acts are finally seeing sales that match their talent. Unfortunately, while these artists have been breaking records with their Number 1 hits, the numbers tell a different story. Cake’s Showroom of Compassion sold only 44,000 copies, making it the lowest-selling Number 1 record since SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991. The Decemberists fared slightly better, managing to move 94,000 copies in their first week atop the charts. It looked like album sales were increasing, but just two weeks after Cake set the record for fewest copies sold to earn a Number 1 slot, Mission Bell sold a meager 40,000 copies to claim the title.
These dismal sales have the industry poised for one of its worst years ever. In the week ending January 30th, while Amos Lee was atop the charts, overall album sales totaled 5.3 million units. According to Billboard, that puts sales down 18% from the comparable week of 2010, when sales reached 6.5 million.
But wait! There’s hope! Before you decide that this is a sign of the end times for the industry, consider the success of digital downloads, which Billboard reports aren’t suffering as much. While Cake was racking up the tiny number of sales they needed to earn a Number 1 slot, Britney Spears’ latest single “Hold it Against Me” was downloaded 411,000 times. Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” saw opening week digital sales of 448,000. And during the week that Amos Lee broke the record, digital downloads were down just 1 percent from the comparable week of 2010.
So maybe there is hope for the independent artists out there. Perhaps pop stars will rule the world of digital downloads, while fans with indie sensibilities (and CD players) continue to purchase physical copies of their music. Or maybe, as Cake’s Vince DiFiore told OurStage in February, “[Fans] must feel sorry for us, or something like that, buying our record instead of getting it for free.”