Last week singer-songwriter Amos Lee scored his best-ever sales figures and highest chart placement while setting a more dubious record – his Mission Bell (Blue Note/EMI) is the latest album to be named the lowest-selling Number One since SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991. This record has been broken a few times in just the first month of this year, first by Taylor Swift's Speak Now and two weeks ago by Cake's Showroom of Compassion.
With 40,000 copies of Mission Bell sold, Lee fell short of Cake's sales by only 4,000 units. Though this tally is paltry in terms of top-selling albums even in a slow-moving month like January, it's a huge leap for the artist, whose previous sales high came in 2008 when his record Last Days at the Lodge moved 16,000 copies in its first week.
Lee's success highlights both positive and negative trends in the music industry. On the upside, the recent run of all-time sales highs by not-quite-mainstream acts such as Lee, Cake, the Decemberists and Iron and Wine indicate that their respective labels have positioned these long-running career artists to do better than ever in the marketplace.
On the downside, the increasingly low bar for topping Billboard's album chart suggests that it may not mean very much to have a Number One record anymore. In cultural terms, free downloads such as mixtapes may have greater social impact. According to the Game, his mixtape Purp and Patron was downloaded over a million times last week. Since that mixtape was spread around the internet via several websites, not to mention bittorrent sites and other file-sharing methods, it's almost impossible to get an accurate sense of how many copies were downloaded. Nevertheless, if the Game's estimate is anywhere in the ballpark of the actual download figures it significantly dwarfs the number of people who paid for Lee's new record.