Fans of indie rock bands like the Shins and Arcade Fire are doing something peculiar: they’re buying downloadable albums online. Amidst a dismal first quarter in which album sales in all configurations are down nearly 17%, the Shins and Arcade fire are selling more albums than ever before, and nearly a third of those album sales are digital.
The Shins surprised the industry in February by debuting at #2 on the sales chart, selling 118,000 copies of their new album “Wincing the Night Away.” An amazing 36% of these album sales were digital. According to Billboard Magazine, “the Shins had never been higher than No. 86 on The Billboard 200 prior to this week, nor had Sub Pop [the label] been higher than No. 79.”
Six weeks later, Arcade Fire also debuted at #2, selling 92,000 copies of “Neon Bible,” of which 30% were digital. Billboard noted that Arcade Fire’s previous album never once sold 8,000 copies in a week, and the album was the fastest seller in the history of Merge Records. Clearly, something interesting is happening.
The audience for these two bands is growing fast, and digital album sales are fueling that growth rather than cannibalizing sales of CD’s. Some industry watchers have wondered if indie rock fans are buying the albums as a way to financially support their heroes. Has buying an album become like the voluntary entrance fee at a museum, something you do because you “should” rather than because you “have to?”
We have noted in this space that Apple has only sold about 25 songs for each iPod. By “unbundling” the songs on a CD, iTunes allows listeners to cherry pick their favorite songs rather than buying the whole album. With options to rip, burn, file share, and cherry pick, indie rockers have a dozen reasons not to buy an entire digital album. The music industry would sure like to know more about this emerging group of fashion-forward consumers who are willing to pay the freight for new music.