Numberscruncher: Cheap Trick Takes On Nielsen SoundScan

Written by Current Events, Numberscruncher

Cheap Trick, the pride of Rockford, has a new CD out called The Latest. It’s been released through Tunecore , a service that makes it easy for bands to sell downloads of their music on iTunes, eMusic, and other sites; it also has some distribution services for self-produced CDs. It gives bands control over their distribution and rights. For a band like Cheap Trick, which has a following but ain’t exactly the Rolling Stones, the result is almost definitely more profits than anything available from a major label.

However, Cheap Trick used to be on a major label, so Sony handles the group’s back catalog. Two weeks ago, the band’s manager, Dave Frey, published a rant on Tunecore’s blog about Sony. His concern is that the band puts out new music and goes on tour to support it. When Sony notices an increase in interest, it puts out a cheap compilation CD, the kind that can be found at interstate rest stop gift shops and in discount stores before the December holidays. That, Frey thinks, dilutes the band’s sales.

Now, there are performance and publishing royalties associated with those compilations, so some folks in the band are making money. The other people making money are all the businesses that sell sales data to Nielsen Soundscan, the dominant source of music sales information. (A sister business, Bookscan, handles data on book sales.) Major retail chains sell their sales information to Soundscan, which in turn resells reports to the record companies and others who might want that information.

Frey asked Tunecore to keep Cheap Trick’s new CD off of Soundscan in order to prevent yet another cheapie compilation CD. Nevertheless, data got out into the market, and he is unhappy. He expects another bargain disc to distract customers from The Latest.

It is really hard to get reliable sales numbers. The problem is that the artist doesn’t always get them. I once had a share in a Bookscan subscription until it turned out that their login system couldn’t handle users logging in from different locations. (At the time the group bought the subscription, several people could share a password, but the notion was that they would all be at the same workplace with the same IP address.) Those few weeks were so informative! For the first time, I could see exactly where my books were selling. I could also see how much my Dummies books outsold certain books by big-name authors who received hefty advances.

I wasn’t sure if I was happy to have outsold them or sad that I didn’t get their big advances and Colbert Report appearances.

I know that my publisher has Bookscan data, but darned if I get to see it. I receive a royalty statement twice a year, in July with data through the end of April and in January with data through October. It’s not exactly a timely source of information. My publisher has thousands of authors, most of whom put out the reference and textbooks that make up the so-called Long Tail, so it’s not really practical for them to send out Bookscan data every week. I get that. But I know that it affects how much effort goes into marketing and what my next advance is likely to be.

But Soundscan and Bookscan also add some big inefficiencies into the market. Both lack a lot of data from independent stores, which means that marketing efforts will bypass the independents, too. (Some online cynics claim that chains use the data to find markets where independent stores are strong, then move in and force them out of business.) Do well with a book written for one series, and the editors of a similar but competing series will rush in with their version of that title.

Knowledge is power, and that’s why Nielsen isn’t anxious to make it cheap. If Soundscan and Bookscan information were made available at a reasonable price, then bands and authors could use it to make better decisions about their own promotional efforts. That would make me happy. I’m not sure Dave Frey would be convinced, though.