Summer is generally a hot time for music, especially for concerts. But in the last two weeks or so, the music industry received an unexpected boost with two blockbuster albums - this despite an 11 percent dip in CD sales during the past year.
Seemingly out of nowhere, New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne and grand British rock quartet Coldplay released albums - Tha Carter III and Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, respectively - whose phenomenal first-week sales bucked the industry trend.
Given the crumbling infrastructure of the music industry, sagging CD sales and the proliferation of peer-to-peer file sharing, how did a scrappy, heavily tattooed Southern rapper and a self-consciously majestic rock band generate such huge numbers?
"The marketing was smarter for both acts, plain and simple," says James Cruz, president of SRC, a marketing and branding company based in New York City. "It's about how Lil Wayne and Coldplay are connecting with fans, which is mostly on the Web."
In what could be a model for other artists, Cruz and others say the pair has used the Internet, popular television shows, social networking sites and even ring tones to grab attention - and sales.
In Wayne's case, his sixth solo album, Tha Carter III, sold just over a million copies in the week after its June 10 release. The last album to sell that much in a week was 2005's The Massacre, the sophomore release by 50 Cent. But before the industry could catch its breath, Coldplay dropped Viva la Vida the week after Wayne, generating sales of more than 721,200 only days after the album hit stores.
On this week's Billboard album charts, the pop-rock band bumped Wayne from No. 1 to No. 2. Eight years have passed since the listing last published back-to-back No. 1 debuts with first-week sales of more than 700,000, when Britney Spears (Oops! ... I Did It Again) and Eminem (The Marshall Mathers LP) released monster albums within a week of each other.
Wayne especially has increased his presence via the Internet. Although the rapper has been a star in Southern hip-hop for more than a decade, his profile among mainstream audiences has steadily risen in the last year, building momentum for Tha Carter III. Despite the fact that the rapper owns 15 gold and platinum plaques, Wayne hustled around the industry like an upstart. Last year alone, without the release of an official album, he appeared on more than 70 songs by other artists. He also reached listeners via mix tapes, or unofficial recordings, and file-sharing networks, stirring anticipation for the new album.
But it also helped tremendously that the CD release was preceded by "Lollipop," a summer radio smash that sat atop the pop charts the week Tha Carter III hit stores. (After 15 weeks, the single is currently at No. 2.) The catchy tune with its bubbling synths is now the best-selling ringtone of the year, according to Nielsen RingScan.
"In the case of Wayne and Coldplay, it was about better branding," says Cruz, who managed 50 Cent during his first wave of fame and platinum sales. "The marketing for both acts was directed more to their core demographics."
To reach Wayne's fans, which are generally high-school and college age, his label, Universal/Cash Money Records, established partnerships with Yahoo, America Online, iTunes and MySpace, where he has more than 680,000 "friends."
"MySpace consistently serves as a vital tool in an artist's success," says Jessica Bass, communications coordinator for the social networking Web site. "In the case of Lil Wayne and his recent album success, we know that he heavily promoted the album through his MySpace profile."
For Coldplay, it was a matter of affirming its superstar status through high-profile promotional opportunities. Prior to the release of Viva la Vida, the band was prominently featured in TV ads for iTunes. The visually stunning commercial was also shown during a prime rating spot: the finale for the seventh season of American Idol.
"iTunes dumping millions of ad dollars into ads for Coldplay's Viva La Vida, including big buys on American Idol, has to be a major reason their sales are taking off," says Scott Lorenz, president of Westwind Communications, a Michigan-based marketing firm. "You can't beat that type of exposure."
As a result, Viva la Vida garnered the best advance first-week sales of any album in iTunes' five-year history. But an aggressive radio campaign also helped fuel sales for Coldplay's new CD. In advance of the album's release, the band sent two singles to radio. Of the two, "Viva la Vida" has become the most successful, topping the pop charts last week. Also, a few days before the album hit stores, Coldplay gave free concerts in London, Barcelona and New York City that drew capacity crowds.
The sales spikes of the last two weeks couldn't have come at a better time. Although two albums alone can't rectify the shaky music industry, Cruz of SRC says the smart, untraditional marketing of Lil Wayne and Coldplay could whistle in new promotional directions for other artists, possibly resulting in strong sales.
"It's all about the way the artist engages the consumers," he says. "Everything has to come together: the music, the timing of release, the touring. ... This should be a message to the music industry - it's really about putting out artists who aren't so disposable."