Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Big Media Flexes Its Muscle, and Justin Timberlake Sells a Lot of Music

justin timberlakeFrom the Big Old Media Still Has Some Legs file: Justin Timberlake sold 968,000 copies of his new album in the last week.

That kind of first-week sales stat used to be no big deal for the music industry, back when people routinely bought music. In 2000, the year sales peaked, Justin Timberlake and the rest of ’N Sync sold more than two million copies of an album in a debut week, and people like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys would put up similar numbers.

Since then, of course, music sales have fallen apart (though the decline may have stopped). Just as important, the idea of a media monoculture — where everyone watches or listens to or reads the same thing — has atomized, courtesy of Facebook and Twitter and 500 channels on TV and an infinite number on YouTube, etc.

So, at a minimum, the success of “20/20” reminds us that, on occasion, lots of people are still interested in the same thing.

Especially if that thing comes out on a big label — Sony’s RCA — and is supported by a promotional blitz that includes a David Fincher-directed video, a “Saturday Night Live” appearance, a week-long stint on “Jimmy Fallon”, a Target campaign, a Bud Light campaign, appearances at Super Bowl and South by Southwest events, etc., a huge push from radio, etc., etc.

Wait a minute, though. What about Alex Day, the YouTube star with no record label and no Big Media promotional support, who beat Justin Timberlake on iTunes?

That was the story James Altucher wrote up on TechCrunch last week. And it’s a pretty great one, in part because Day is a great interview and in part because Altucher is a great writer.

But it’s not exactly true.

There was indeed a point in time where Day ranked ahead of Timberlake on the iTunes U.K. album charts. But the thing about iTunes music charts is that they don’t tell you how many units anyone has sold in aggregate, or even over a week or a day. They just provide a snapshot of how different acts are performing, relative to each other, in something close to real time.

That is — at some point this month, Alex Day was moving more units than Justin Timberlake. For a couple hours. Or maybe even longer.

But not much longer. Timberlake’s album hit the top spot on the U.K. chart within a couple days of its release. I haven’t seen anyone spit out an iTunes sales number for either artist, but so far this year, he’s sold more albums in the U.K. than anyone else.

Which again, isn’t to diminish what Day has done. His unsigned-ness has now become part of his story/marketing, but there’s nothing wrong with maximizing your assets.

And lots of artists who do break on the Web end up signing with a big label anyway, so more power to Day for making it work on his own.

But sometimes it also helps to have a giant label and an even bigger marketing apparatus working on your behalf. Ask Justin Timberlake.


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald