Only 2,050 of the 97,751 albums released in 2009, or 2.1 percent, sold over 5,000 copies.
That's David Byrne in his book How Music Works. He got the numbers from "SoundScan via Billboard," he says.
Byrne is discussing the economics of recording and how many copies of an album you have to sell in order to earn back what you spend on making it. There are cheap lo-fi methods - like playing a guitar and singing into a boombox, which is the way some people have done it - and John Darnielle, for one, says, "[I]t sounds great … I look at it more like food: You can't say there's a best food. Foods taste different …" If you go with something like that you won't need to sell a million copies - or even 5,000 - but if you want your album sales to pay your rent - or if you want to hire a sound engineer or pay somebody to play alongside you - or maybe just want to earn enough to get started on a new recording, well, it ain't gonna be easy.
97,751 albums were released in 2009. That's a lot. Isn't it? I wonder what that number includes. Church choir recordings? Poetry readings?
A lot of books are published each year, too. Few authors sell enough copies to say they're making money off their work. That's the way it is. I shouldn't have been surprised to see the same thing in album sales. We don't hear that many songs on the radio, do we? We hear a handful and we hear that small batch over and over, especially as the years go by and only so many hits of the 60s, 70s, 80s, can shoulder open their three minutes on the oldies stations.
I gave three readings this summer and fall, trying to promote my new book, FACT. Over those three readings I sold a total of ONE copy of the book. It's not expensive. I got several compliments on my reading style. I do enjoy performance and it's nice to be praised. But nobody had to pay admission to the readings; it would've been nicest if the appreciation shown included buying a book. I haven't set a goal of breaking even. I tried to, once upon a time, but I learned that that's not going to happen. Not with what I write - what I like to write - what I will continue to write because it rewards me - that the rewards are not money is what it is.