Music for the older set climbs the CD charts

Modest sellers shining in download era

Sade had a number one hit in February with her first album in 10 years. Sade had a number one hit in February with her first album in 10 years. (PRNewsfoto/ Epic Records)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / June 16, 2010

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“Laws of Illusion,’’ the new CD by adult contemporary singer Sarah McLachlan, came out yesterday and will almost certainly debut near the top of the Billboard album chart. Sade had a number one hit in February with her first album in 10 years. Michael Buble, Barbra Streisand, Susan Boyle — all singers who appeal to the over-40 crowd — have recently enjoyed top-five debuts on the album chart.

As consumers buy fewer and fewer CDs, an interesting phenomenon is occurring — artists who appeal to older listeners are showing up surprisingly high on the charts.

The reason: Adults are largely the ones buying CDs these days. Younger people tend to download in general and focus on singles.

“We’re appealing to the last buying vestiges of the public, because adults don’t steal, because we don’t know how to,’’ said legendary producer and songwriter David Foster, who produced Buble’s latest album. Older consumers, he said, are “still married to the concept of ‘put the CD in the car, put the CD in the library.’ We’re still in that zone, and that’s why this is still working.’’

To be sure, the hottest of the pop and hip-hop acts aimed at the younger demographic — Justin Bieber and Eminem, to name two — are still cracking the top spots on the album chart, but more and more it is the acts that appeal to older listeners that rise to the top. Streisand managed to best Mariah Carey when the divas’ most recent releases went head to head for the top spot in October.

Partly this is due to lower overall album sales. The recent reissue of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album “Exile on Main Street’’ debuted at number two on the strength of only 76,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen Soundscan. Sales in that range have been equally winning for other “heritage acts’’ like Carole King and James Taylor, and Melissa Etheridge. (This has also been a boon to indie acts, which can debut high on the chart with totals in the 40,000 range.)

These figures are a far cry from the highs of the early 2000s. In a week in March 2000, boy band ’N Sync sold 2.4 million copies of its album “No Strings Attached,’’ setting the US record for sales in one week. Britney Spears and Eminem each sold more than 1 million copies of an album in its first week.

To even make the Top 10 back then, an album typically had to sell in the six figures. Sales in the 70,000 to 80,000 range would rate only the bottom half of the top 20. Today that can be good enough for number one. The third volume of music from the TV show “Glee’’ hit number one two weeks ago with only 63,000 copies sold.

Mike Mullaney, music director at radio station Mix 104.1, which plays older artists like McLachlan and younger acts like Lady Antebellum, says fans of rock, country, and adult contemporary — largely older listeners — tend to be supportive of individual artists, “whereas the pop world is much more song-oriented.’’

“You look at a traditional band like Bon Jovi. They sold a good amount of CDs this time just because his fans — that’s the commerce they learned.’’ Bon Jovi’s latest album sold 163,000 copies in its first week in November.

There are still blockbusters from artists who appeal to young people. Jay-Z’s “Blueprint 3’’ sold 476,000 copies in its first week last fall, but even that was dwarfed by the debut album from YouTube sensation Susan Boyle, which sold 711,000. The last artist to get near that figure? Aging hard rockers AC/DC in 2008. Before that, it was the Eagles comeback album in 2007.

“Susan Boyle’s a great example of the phenomenon,’’ Mullaney said. “Taylor Swift’s album took over a year to sell what Boyle’s sold in three months because Taylor’s people were doing it in dribs and drabs and buying singles and Susan Boyle’s [fans] are older and probably knew she’d have a whole songbook of great stuff based on what she did that night.’’

As is often the case, other factors have figured into the recent spate of high debuts by adult contemporary artists, said Silvio Pietroluongo, director of charts at Billboard magazine. Sade’s “Soldier of Love’’ came out around Valentine’s Day. Boyle was a viral Internet sensation. Buble appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show the day his album was released.

Even so, Pietroluongo said, older consumers are simply more likely to buy an entire album — whether in the form of a CD or a digital download — than younger people.

And he doesn’t believe it has anything to do with whether they’re listening to their music on a home stereo system or an MP3 player. “If you buy someone in their 50s an iPod, they’ll learn how to download an album,’’ he said. “I’m still someone who likes to have a full album and then decide what to put on my iPod.’’

That’s what Maryanne Webster, 56, of Billerica does. Picking up the new live album by Taylor and King at the Best Buy in Cambridgeside Galleria this week, Webster said she buys CDs twice a month and rips her favorite songs to her iPod. She also downloads tracks from iTunes, but mostly only individual songs, reserving physical CD purchases for albums that she thinks will be strong from start to finish.

“I like to have the CD so I can pop it in my car, because I have a long commute every day,’’ she said. “So rather than listen to the radio — they play the same songs over and over again — I get to listen to my favorites.’’

Mike Silverman, 21, of Needham, on the other hand, never buys CDs. Although he is a big music fan, he says he’s purchased fewer than 100 CDs in his lifetime. In the past few years, however, the Northeastern student has amassed more than a thousand album downloads, most purchased from iTunes.

“I download a lot more now than I ever bought,’’ he said.

There’s at least one other reason album sales are skewing older: their gift potential.

“Most people won’t give you the gift of a download card; they’ll buy you a CD,’’ Pietroluongo said. “A lot of these artists that have done well, like the Susan Boyles and the Michael Bubles and the Josh Grobans. It’s like, ‘Well, what am I going to get my mom, sister, aunt, grandma as a gift or a stocking stuffer that’s under 20 bucks?’ ’’

Sarah Rodman can be reached at