Dear Aspiring Music Pundits: Use Better Numbers, Please

noah | January 8, 2009 10:00 am

Hey, did you know that Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts I-IV was the top-selling digital album on Amazon MP3 last year? You might if you read the music press recently, as people are wont to hail and huzzah Trent Reznor for even so much as taking a Webcam photo of himself these days. Much is being made of the fact that Ghosts, which sold for $5 via Amazon’s online shop, was available for free digitally from Reznor’s Web site yet still topped a retailer’s charts; so much, in fact, that people are concluding that making something free is a path—if not the path—to profitability. Which is a false conclusion for a whole mess of reasons, including, as LostTurntable reminds us in the comments to this very post, the fact that all 36 tracks of the album were never available for “free” in the first place.

Yes,only the first nine tracks of the 36-track album were free when it initially came out; the $5 download price was the same on and Amazon. So this Reznorian triumph is even less of a big deal than initially thought!

Never mind that “No. 1 on the Amazon MP3 store in 2008” is a lovely little statistic to throw out in a late-night TV ad, but what does it really mean? Amazon’s lack of hard numbers is pretty telling here—I can tout Never Shout Never’s “Yippee” being No. 1 on this week’s SoundScan singles chart without telling you that if someone else had sold 918 copies, they’d have beaten “Yippee” by a nose—and the fact of the matter is that no matter what Amazon sold, the total’s going to be dwarfed by the Reznor-hawked first-week total of 781,917 “transactions.” There was also the matter of Nine Inch Nails’ site being slammed when Ghosts was released, thus making the Amazon MP3 alternative attractive to the impatient.

Just as important here is the idea of the casual fan, the fan who may not be as plugged in to the Nine Inch Nails Internet universe and thus not aware of, say, all those HD torrents of concert footage released earlier this week. Those of you who lived through the ’90s may remember that Nine Inch Nails was a pretty big band at the time! It’s not much of a stretch to think that there are people out there, even in our hyperconnected hypertechnological age, who don’t live and breathe online and who, thus, might have been surprised when they came across a new release by a band they liked while browsing Amazon for a deal on Super Mario Galaxy.

It’s important to remember that the lack of, or maybe I should say lack of mainstream cultural placement of, promotion given to new releases is constructing a huge blind spot where recently issued product almost doesn’t exist for people outside of the superfan/Internet bubble. Over the past few weeks I’ve had friends express surprise when I mentioned new releases by the likes of AC/DC and Taylor Swift. The AC/DC ignorance I’m writing off because the person in question lives in the Wal-Mart-free backwater of New York City, but Taylor Swift?! Sure, this shouldn’t be all that shocking given free-falling sales numbers and the decimated state of music retail, but it’s a very real problem that hasn’t been addressed during the great roll-up of every piece of inventory into one dusty Wal-Mart aisle. And Reznor’s ability to keep the interest of those casual fans who liked him back when is probably more attributable to his album’s (relative) retail success than any server-crippling distribution schemes.

The Internet keeps putting me in a bad mood [Google Blog Search]

(NB: This post was revised after LostTurntable pointed out the very germane fact regarding Ghosts‘ actual price. I’m a dope for not reading my own damn archives more closely. Get the Dear Abby Wet Noodle out!)