By Beppe Colli
June 13, 2010

It happens, once in a while, that I feel a pinch of curiosity about the actual sales of album x or song y, be they new or old; unfortunately, most of the times there's no way I can fulfill my curiosity, and not for any lack of trying on my part: with the obvious exception of most hits, and many famous groups, information is scarce, and what's available often proves to be pretty unreliable; sure, when it comes to recent stuff there's always Soundscan, but the cost of the service - which is quite reasonable for a "professional" kind of magazine - is well beyond the finances of a mere "listener with pen" (and would I really consult those charts that often, anyway?). So, in the end, every time fresh, reliable information comes my way I feel very glad indeed.

Last month, I got some figures about the chart performance of a few names which were totally unknown to me, the main exception to this being album Nobody's Daughter, by US group Hole: chart position, #138; sales this week, 3,823 copies; percentage change, -44; weeks on the charts, 3; cumulative sales, 32,560 copies. It's quite obvious that in this case sales had been weak: lotsa publicity, Courtney Love appearing practically everywhere, her being a famous name and so on, it goes without saying that sales expectations could not have been this low.

Also by chance, not too long ago, I happened to learn about US sales of Randy Newman's first album (of same name) at the time of its first US release (1968). In his review of Newman's second album, 12 Songs (which appeared in the issue of US magazine Rolling Stone dated April 16, 1970), Bruce Grimes wrote: "Eventually Reprise redesigned the cover and gave the album away to those willing to write for it; sales have still not passed 4,500 copies". A weak performance, to say the least. But what about its (quantitative) framework?

The recent re-release of the world-famous Rolling Stones album Exile On Main Street in a multitude of formats is without a doubt one of the top stories of recent months (I'm pretty sure readers will agree). One thing has to be noticed: being hyper-conscious of the financial power of their legend (which is reason #1 for all those expensive concert seats), The Rolling Stones had avoided paying literal homage to their vinyl past, obviously fearing that - alas! - time was not on their side anymore; and so, many were surprised to see the group organize a huge campaign in order to promote, first, the Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out (the much-lauded live album with the donkey on the cover from 1969) box; then, the huge monolith bearing the name Exile On Main Street, with engines already running hot about a new Some Girls re-release in the not-too-distant future.

I have to confess I was quite skeptical about sales: is there anybody on earth who does not own (at least) a copy of Exile On Main Street? Or many copies, in different formats/editions? As facts have showed, I was totally wrong. "Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street tops UK chart", wrote (on 23 May 2010) the BBC website (it was observed that this was the first time since Marc Bolan's death that an album of previously released material got to #1 - the first week of its being released!). Meanwhile, on May 26, US sources wrote that "Exile on Main Street will debut tomorrow at No. 2 on the US Billboard charts"; those were the figures for the albums occupying the three top spots: Glee Soundtrack, 136,000 copies; Exile..., 76,000; The Black Keys, 73,000, with the album Exile Rarities (debuting at no. 27) selling 15,000 copies.

While I was pondering the meaning of this, new, incredible, figures came my way. These news having appeared in a number of publications, my source being the article by Paul Resnikoff for, dated Monday, May 17, 2010, bearing the title: "2% Of Music Purchases Make 91% Of Sales In 2009". Of course, everybody paid attention to these astounding figures: "just 2.1 percent of all albums sold managed to cross the 5,000-mark, a group that made up 91 percent of total sales". But what was really astonishing was the total number of albums released in the course of 2009 (also, the dangerous implications of this): 98.000! Hence, the question asked by the writer: "How does anyone launch a career in such a super-saturated market?". It's quite apparent, in fact, that those 5,000 copies sold by Newman's first album mean different things, when compared to the same 5,000 copies as sold by an album released today.

But how many albums were released annually, ten, or twenty, years ago? Well, while I'm sure this kind of information is available, somewhere, I found this quote from a Robert Christgau book posted by a writer in a Web Forum to be quite stunning: "Between 1988 and 1998 the number of recordings released annually increased tenfold, to something like 35,000".

There are many (disturbing) implications to be derived by this. I'll choose a few.

A few months ago I sent an e-mail message featuring this question: "As a listener, these days I often feel like I'm in a rut. Would you please tell me a few names of albums you've really, really enjoyed lately?". This message was sent to half a dozen US musicians that I know for a fact to be active, intelligent, omnivorous listeners. It was after I sent the message that it dawned on me that I had forgotten to mention that it was only new releases I was talking about, but I decided not to worry, the context of my question being clear enough, or so I thought, to qualify my meaning. I have no problem admitting I was quite surprised by what I got: nobody had mentioned any new releases, with the obvious exception of re-releases; there was a huge chapter about live concerts (with mucho space being given to contemporary classical); as a kind of coda, somebody wrote "If it's new stuff you wanted to know about, I'm afraid I have to say that (...)".

(Those willing to differ for mercenary reasons, please consider this: one cannot possibly argue that those 2,000 albums reviewed annually, which by the way are a highly self-selected sample sent by record companies and distributors, are - purely by chance - "the best" from a universe of 98,000 albums, 96,000 of which one has never listened to. I really hope that nobody, post-modernists especially, will propose any arguments of an inductive nature.)

It's been such a long time since I've seen Mick Jagger - also, Keith Richards - travel the world promoting a piece of merchandise bearing the Rolling Stones brand. Interested readers wil easily find lotsa videos and words all over the Web.

It was about a month ago that I happened to read, on a US Forum, a thread where many comments appeared about an interview with Mick Jagger that was linked there. Unfortunately, the link worked up to a certain date, the date being now well in the past. But I understood that the very same text appeared in the most recent issue of the Italian edition of Rolling Stone magazine. I was quite surprised by Jagger's patient attitude when confronted with an interviewer who didn't sound as he was well-versed in any matters concerning re-mixing and re-mastering (I have to admit I was quite pleased that in this day and age, stuff appears about these matters). I especially liked Jagger saying (here I'm quoting from memory) "but today a new re-master makes it possible for one to modify an album in ways that are quite similar to a re-mix", hence: "I could re-mix an album, and not tell anybody".

The most interesting interview I read was the one with Jagger and Richards by Alex Pappademas which appeared in GQ magazine, April 16, 2010, with the title "Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on Exile on Main St.".

So: which is the best source of information at one's disposal to read about Exile On Main Street in its present state, when compared to the previous editions? This is easy: I had the chance to read a thread on the Web, which in its third part amounted to about 1,000 posts (it was a very long conversation). Those who are in a hurry will be obviously better served by a svelte newspaper article, the best one I happened to read being the one by Neil McCormick which appeared on May 24th, 2010 in the blog of UK newspaper The Telegraph under the title "The Rolling Stones make the charts sound human again". Why do I say "best"? Because, after stating the facts for those of us not "in the know", McCormick clearly explains the difference between the sound of the original, though now re-mastered, album, and those "ten unfinished tracks which we've finally completed", starting with the volume of the vocals; and it's a convincing line of thought that readers are invited to explore in full.

As we all know by now, the number of things competing for our attention in the modern world is potentially infinite. Hence, a "pointillistic" type of attention that greatly benefits from being confronted with "simple" objects which appear to us in an "easy to digest" form. But objects from the past are rarely "simple" (the same being true of those from today, with the obvious exception of those which are designed to be this way). So, an object gets "translated" into an elementary formula which will make it easy for the consumer to "get" it: a few inches of ink on a page, a few minutes to read about it.

Exile On Main Street has become an innocent victim of this kind of hyper-simplification process: "the album that was recorded in a hot, humid basement in the South of France, while the group enjoyed every kind of excess known to man"; a label that's the perfect mythological definition, on a par with David Bowie's "Berlin trilogy" and Neil Young's "triptych trilogy".

To me, Jagger sometimes appeared as he was very surprised by the strong belief on the part of quite a few interviewers to consider Exile On Main Street in this mythological guise, though Jagger - calendar in his hands - was ready to offer sound evidence to the contrary (this is not the first time, by the way, that Jagger has argued in favour of the "correct version", as per available evidence). And I really suspect it must have not been easy for him to see that it was not the music that was the main point of interest here, but a legendary album "that was recorded in a hot, humid basement in the South of France, while the group enjoyed every kind of excess known to man".

But what can a poor boy do, in order to know more about the actual recording process of Exile On Main Street? And what could those people who wrote about the album without first doing their homework possibly do in order to learn more about it all? Well, it's easy.

Step one: Pay a visit to a site featuring a Rolling Stones chronology, for in.,

Step two: Look for Exile On Main Street.



June 16-July 27, 1970: Olympic Sound Studios, London, England

October 21-Mid-November 1970: Rolling Stones Mobile Unit, Mick Jagger's home Stargroves, Newbury, England

June 7-October 1971: Rolling Stones Mobile Unit, Keith Richards' home Nellcôte, Villefranche-sur-mer, France

December 1971: Sunset Sound Studios, Los Angeles, USA

Overdubbed & mixed:

December 1971-February 1972: Sunset Sound Studios, Los Angeles, USA

March 24-25, 1972: Wally Heider Studios, Los Angeles, USA

© Beppe Colli 2010 | June 13, 2010