Old 'catalog' albums have turned into a gold mine for the record industry


Elektra Records sold 662,000 copies in the United States last year of an 18-year-old album, the Eagles' "Greatest Hits 1971-75."

That was almost 200,000 copies more than DGC Records sold of Hole's "Live Through This," which may have received more media attention than any other release of 1994.

The collection landed Hole's lead singer Courtney Love on the cover of Rolling Stone and was named the best new record of the year by the nation's pop critics.

But, while "Live Through This" reached as high as No. 55 last year on Billboard magazine's weekly chart of the nation's Top 200 best-selling albums, "Greatest Hits 1971-75" never appeared on the chart.

That's because the weekly Top 200 does not include catalog albums, defined by Billboard as material at least 2 years old and has not appeared on any other Billboard chart for a minimum of three months.

Catalog sales, which are listed in a separate Billboard chart, represent a hugely lucrative but little celebrated aspect of the record industry, which spends the bulk of its multimillion-dollar promotion budget trying to establish new artists and recently released albums.

Catalog product accounted for as much as 45 percent of all U.S. album sales last year -- or about $5 billion -- reported Mike Shalett, chief operating officer of SoundScan, a New York firm that revolutionized the nation's music charts in 1991 through its computerized sales monitoring system.

"I'm sure it's not hidden to the record companies, and I'm sure it's not hidden to the retailers," Mr. Shalett said, "but it may be hidden sometimes from the public."

Only 119 of the more than 5,000 albums released in 1994 sold better than the Eagles' greatest-hits package, which was the champion of the catalog chart.

Sales of the album got a boost, of course, when the band reunited for a tour last year.

But 14 other catalog albums also fared well enough during 1994 to have ranked among the year's overall 200 best sellers. The Top 10 catalog sellers, in order: Bob Marley & the Wailers' "Legend"; Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon"; Pink Floyd's "The Wall"; Jimmy Buffett's "Songs You Know by Heart"; Journey's "Greatest Hits"; the Eagles' "Greatest Hits Vol. II"; Enya's "Watermark"; Mannheim Steamroller's "Christmas"; and Mannheim Steamroller's "Fresh Aire Christmas."

All 10 had sales of at least 450,000 units. (By contrast, nearly 5 million copies were sold of the year's biggest-selling album, the "Lion King" soundtrack.)

"Having a very strong catalog is a little bit like having a license to print money," Mr. Shalett said.

Agreed Stan Goman, senior vice president of record and video retail operations for the Tower Records chain: "When an album becomes a catalog item, that's when the manufacturer really makes tons of money. They've recouped their recording costs, they've recouped their promotion cost, they've recouped their artwork cost. All they're doing is just stamping them out. All their costs are gone."

But David Simone, president of PolyGram Music Publishing Group and a former senior vice president at Capitol Records, said those statements aren't entirely true.

"As a general overall comment, I don't know that it holds water that you make more money from catalog product than from front-line items," said Mr. Simone, adding that most catalog albums are listed at mid-range or budget prices. "If you're really going to sell catalog, you can't be passive. You've got to be out there spending money marketing the product."

Also, Mr. Simone said, profit from catalog sales is often used by companies to sign and develop new acts. "It can give you a very significant cash flow," he said.

What sparks catalog sales?

"The same kinds of things that would create movement on our [new album] charts . . ." said Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for Billboard.

These include radio and television air play, touring, a television appearance, the use of a song in a commercial or a movie soundtrack, or record-company promotions.

On a more morbid level, the death of an artist is also often a big sales stimulus. Nirvana's "Bleach," which was released in 1989 on tiny Sub Pop Records, jumped onto the catalog chart for the first time shortly after the death last year of the band's Kurt Cobain, and it remains there a year later.

Catalog sales can also receive a lift when an act comes up with a new hit. Two punk-influenced rock bands that broke big last year, Green Day and Offspring, saw their older albums subsequently jump onto the catalog chart.

Also influential to catalog sales is classic-rock radio, which has kept artists associated with the '60s and '70s on the air into the '90s.

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