“The only thing that kept coming to mind to me was that line in the Bruce Springsteen song: ‘Someday we’ll look back at this and it will all seem funny,’ ” recalls Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke.
Now, some critical hits that were trounced on their initial release by the likes of ‘N Sync can claim a measure of commercial superiority. The Flaming Lips’ “Soft Bulletin,” often hailed as one of the best albums of the ‘90s by critics, sold a solid 38,000 copies last year.
Radiohead’s legendary “OK Computer,” currently celebrating its 10-year anniversary, last year sold 94,000 copies. Nirvana’s “Nevermind” has done even better; it sold 143,000 copies in 2006.
Current events can alter the charts. When Ray Charles died, his older albums spiked for months, Mr. Mayfield says.
Recent reunions of the Police and Genesis can be expected to increase sales of their catalogs. The Police’s 1986 compilation “Every Breath You Take” has already doubled its already strong 2006 sales by selling 107,000 copies so far this year.
Many well-regarded albums continue to do healthy business, including: U2’s “Joshua Tree,” Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic,” Beck’s “Odelay,” Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang,” the Clash’s “London Calling,” Weezer’s “Weezer,” and the Pixies’ “Doolittle.” Each sold at least 20,000 copies last year.
Still, many albums that are consistently revered on critics’ top-10 lists of the ‘80s and ‘90s have not sold much. Joy Division’s “Closer,” the Smiths’ “The Queen is Dead,” My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless,” and REM’s “Murmur” all sold 12,000 copies or less last year.
Though hip-hop continues to rule today’s charts, many of its most historic albums don’t enjoy the catalog sales that those from rock’s heyday do. Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” sold 15,000 copies last year; Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique” sold 22,000; and Run DMC’s “Raising Hell” sold far less than both.
So far this year, catalog sales are down 11.7 percent, but that’s stronger than overall sales, which are down 14.7 percent, according to Billboard. It’s a major portion of the music business. This year’s total catalog sales of 95.6 million copies accounts for about 40 percent of all albums sold physically.
That still leaves illegal downloads unaccounted for, as well as a more important quantity: cultural impact. Though bands like Sonic Youth, the Ramones and Public Enemy may never sell as much as other acts, their influence remains immeasurable.
“Impact is not strictly about sales,” Mr. Fricke says. “Otherwise everyone would be running around forming bands that sound exactly like Poison.”