We can rebuild them

Back catalogues find new life in the digital world

The entirety of the music industry is talking about The Suburbs.
And well it should. In the United States, Arcade Fire’s new album sold 156 000 copies in its first week and debuted at number one on the Billboard charts.
Yes, it’s easy to argue that, because sales industry wide have been decimated, an indie band like the Arcade Fire or the Shins or Vampire Weekend—who have legions of loyal fans who will buy the new album on its release day—can amass enough sales in that first rush week after the album hits the shelves that they can go on to top the charts.
To that end, it’s worth noting that while 156 000 copies is a significant number, it came nowhere close to the 700 000 copies Eminem’s Recovery sold in the US in its first week of release.
The charts are like a sporting event: a win is a win, whether you beat the opposition by a single point or act like any team that plays the Eskimos and win by 40. You can boast of a number one album whether you sell 500 000 records in a week or if you just sell 150 000, if the timing is right.
Still, there is no shaking the sense of excitement about The Suburbs. It’s an indie album that debuted at number one. From a (sort of) Canadian band.
But maybe the most shocking thing wasn’t the fact that the Arcade Fire debuted at number one on the Billboard charts—it was that the success of The Suburbs pulled the Arcade Fire’s back catalogue back into the charts.
The Suburbs debuted at number one and the band’s 2004 record, Funeral, appeared at number 175.

But Billboard had nothing on the digital market. While The Suburbs held steady on the iTunes charts last week, Funeral was at number 10. Two albums in the top 10 at the same time, released six years apart from each other. That’s odd.
And Neon Bible, the band’s second album, was at number 23 on the iTunes chart.
Did the success of The Suburbs spur a bunch of people to go out and discover the Arcade Fire’s back catalogue, or did a bunch of people who had downloads here and there that they’d accumulated over the past six years suddenly get inspired to get a whole album as a package?
See, one of the major benefits of digital retailers is that they never run out of virtual shelf space. As long as someone is paying to maintain an album’s position on the shelves, it remains out there. It doesn’t go out of print. Now, it wasn’t as if Funeral was in any danger of being put in the $1.99 bin with a notch through the CD spine, but the fact that the album has found a new life on iTunes shows that the principle works—that an album can be rediscovered, even if it is from the back catalogue of one of the most popular bands on the planet at the moment.
And, is it a sign that there is such a thing as downloaders’ remorse, that eventually a buyer will come round and buy legitimate copies of an album he or she has had illegally for years? Because, as well as the back catalogue is doing on Billboard, it is sizzling in the digital market.
We have to watch and see if this trend continues when other bands with established back catalogues put out new hit records. If we see it again, it might be a sign that maybe the worst is over for the record biz. V

Steven Sandor is a former editor-in-chief of Vue Weekly, now an editor and author living in Toronto.

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