The latest release from Portland's Decemberists, who will appear at the Royal Oak Music Theatre Wednesday evening [now postponed until April 22 due to inclement weather], is charted by Billboard as the top-selling album in America this past week. A cult band with a passionate fanbase hitting #1 after a decade of persistent hard work is a welcome sight whether the Decemberists' particular quirk is to your taste or not. It's equally refreshing that the honor would fall on such an eccentric group, even as this record finds them embracing their commercial roots as disciples of Neil Young, R.E.M., and classisist country-rock.
But what does a #1 album mean anymore, a single week after Sacramento jokers Cake scored the lowest selling chart-topper in SoundScan history with Showroom of Compassion, in a flukish moment of mass '90s nostalgia? After last year's flood of #1 success from Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire, it's become less surprising how much of the album-buying niche is cornered by college rock. Running the numbers gives a more concrete portrait of the Decemberists' feat: The King Is Dead sold about 94,000 copies, more than twice as many as Cake did last week (44,000). Even more interestingly, it tripled the first-week sales of the previous Decemberists LP, The Hazards of Love, two years ago. That album peaked at #14 with about 19,000 copies sold. Alternative bands tend to build audiences slowly, their sales and chart positions improving with each record, but what accounts for that massive increase?
One important factor would likely be the Amazon digital sales. The Decemberists are the latest to benefit from Amazon MP3's $3.99 daily deal arrangment; the most famous case is probably Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, which broke 150,000 in its debut week last summer -- and did so, it must be noted, without the aid of major label muscle. But give it up for Capitol; they did a lot of things right. Advance copies went out far enough ahead to build a groundswell of hype, marketers aware of the broader appeal of the new record spearheaded a massive internet ad campaign, and the album is simply an easier sell than the conceptual, intricate Hazards, certainly more rewarding of the odd $4 impulse buy.
Capitol has a hit on its hands now, albeit an indie-sized one, unless sales immediately level off; there's still been some instance of the archetypal major label nonsense -- do we really need a $165 limited edition version of the album on the market? -- but situations like the Decemberists' make it much more difficult to accept claims that it's no longer possible to sell rock music to the public in 2011. It may require a lot of deal-making and persistence and a barrage of marketing pushes, but it can be done.