When it comes to pushing CDs on the Web, the new kids on the block can't compete

By Liane Bonin
Updated September 09, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
Backstreet Boys
Credit: George Holz/Corbis-Outline

In what bizarre alternate universe would the Moody Blues, Eric Clapton, and Santana outsell both Ricky Martin AND Britney Spears? Try the Web. This spring, Billboard magazine began publishing an Internet sales chart that tracks what’s hot and what’s not at sites like virginmega.com, checkout.com, and CDnow.com. The most recent standings: Eric Clapton’s ”Blues” album, which is a lowly No. 132 on the traditional Billboard 200, is sitting pretty at No. 10, while Britney Spears’ ”…Baby One More Time” (No. 6 on the Top 200) is barely clinging to No. 20. ”An older-age profile is shopping with us, and what we’re selling is quite distinct from what our stores are selling,” says Virgin Megastore Online president Glen Ward, who explains that everything from big artists’ back catalogs to ”obscure blues albums” are flying off the virtual shelves.

What gives? Baby boomers who may be intimidated by that snotty high school sales clerk and the blaring rap music at the mall seem to like the peace and quiet of shopping over the Net. And while teens want the new Christina Aguilera album the day it hits stores, grown-ups can wait the week or so a disc may take to reach their mailboxes. Or course, it doesn’t hurt that most old fogies have plenty of credit cards, the key to online-shopping bliss.

So does this mean that the online whims of yuppies may soon erase the teenybopper bands’ status as the Mighty Rulers of the Charts? Not exactly. ”Internet sales still make up a really small portion of overall sales,” says Billboard’s Director of Charts Geoff Mayfield, who points out that an album’s Net take rarely accounts for more than ”a fraction of one percent” of its national sales. For a No. 1 Internet hit, for example, this often means just 1,000 to 2,000 records sold online per week. Still, these measly stats should grow dramatically: Internet research company Jupiter Communications estimates that by 2003, online purchases will make up 14 percent of total music sales.

Until then, the good news is that bands whose albums can’t crack the Billboard 200 still have a shot at No. 1 on the Web listing. Mayfield says an up-and-coming band willing to do online promotions such as contests and interviews could actually boost sales enough to chart their album. Fan sites that spread the word don’t hurt, either. One example: Liquid Tension Experiment (a progressive metal band) never appeared in the Billboard 200 but made it to No. 8 on the Internet list. ”Not to take anything away from the accomplishment, but getting onto the Internet chart is a lot easier to do,” says Mayfield. Who knows, now maybe even Motley Crue can have another hit record.