Universal Music archives bring Christmas in avance
LONDON – A catalog of older songs no longer sold in stores, including a Greek singer’s 2000 Christmas album, have been downloaded 250,000 times since February as part of a broad initiative by Universal Music to exhume its archives.
The most popular of the 3,000 tracks made available in digital-only form on online services such as Apple’s (Nasdaq:AAPL – news) iTunes was Gun’s 1994 UK hit “Word Up” and the most popular album was Big Country’s “Steeltown,” which was released in 1984.
The seven-month sales, disclosed by Universal on Tuesday, represent a fresh example of the “long tail” theory that low sales of many products can collectively create a huge market, particularly in the digital age where costs are lower.
“We are now able to respond to and quantify the appetite for more eclectic, diverse recordings from the past,” said Olivier Robert-Murphy, vice president of strategic marketing at Universal Music’s international arm.
“It’s clear that this is a ‘tail’ worth chasing.”
The company did not disclose specific sales figures, but said Nana Mouskouri’s compilation album, “Les Plus Beaux Noels du Monde,” was the fifth most popular album and sold in almost every country where the campaign was launched during a stretch of the year that did not include the Christmas holiday.
The albums made available in 20 countries, mostly in Europe, stretched back to the 1960s, including Brigitte Bardot’s interpretation of “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus,” which was also in the top five.
Digital sales onto portable music players and mobile phones represent about 11 percent of the $21 billion music industry and are slowly making up for the sharp decrease in CD sales.
ITunes has sold more than 1.5 billion songs, and accounts for roughly two-thirds of the digital download market.
Universal Music, a division of French media and telecoms conglomerate Vivendi (VIV.PA), plans to bring back more than 100,000 deleted European recordings, many of which were only produced on vinyl LPs, over the next three to four years and sell them exclusively in digital form.
A second batch of Universal’s back catalog will be made available in late November, and will include songs from Maurice Chevalier, Peter Kraus, The Orb and Charles Trenet.
Other music companies are also selling backlist songs online, but Universal, the industry’s largest player, is making the broadest concerted effort to revive its massive out-of-date library. Back catalog albums account for about 30-35 percent of the company’s CD sales.
Digitising music, particularly decades-old libraries, can be complicated by cumbersome layers of red tape because older contracts with musicians and publishers did not include digital rights.
Emusic, the world’s number two download service behind iTunes, often touts the long tail of older songs it sells from independent labels. It does not carry any music from the world’s four majors because they do not make songs available in the MP3 format, which can be played on any portable device.