Does a splashy debut lose significance as the music industry transitions from physical media to weightless digital? We'll get to that later. In any case, debut has replaced legacy as a benchmark of worth.
Artistic works that build their audience slowly and sustain it for long periods are becoming rare. Most works live and die with their debut. Go big or enjoy staying under the radar. In music, Adele's 21 is the outlier. No one saw it coming, and then nothing could displace it for more than a year.
Hollywood has known this for a long time. Cast, director, genre, story, and production values are irrelevant. The only thing that can predict the long-term box office success of a film is its opening weekend numbers. Big hits that opened small — My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Slumdog Millionaire, for two in recent memory — are the outliers. To generate buzz, a film has to be able to trumpet an immediate historic feat, whether it be the best opening weekend (of ...), or opening night, or midnight debut, or whatever. Get people on the bandwagon before the next big thing comes along, because it's right behind you, already working the hype machine.
At the polar opposite of the sustained hit is what I'll call the hit-and-run, designed to open big and disappear fast before anyone can know how mediocre it might be. This applies equally to music, movies and books. Frozen Heat by Richard Castle debuted at #7 on the 30-September-2012 New York Times Fiction Best Seller List for combined print and e-book sales, dropping Mitch Albom's The Time Keeper from #6 to #8. The next week, it was gone.
Trouble is, while Mitch Albom is a real-life best-selling author — Tuesdays with Morrie spent more than 200 weeks on the best seller list — Richard Castle is a make-believe best-selling author (turned amateur cop) on an eponymous TV show. The release was a publicity stunt coinciding with the start of the new season. Hyperion Press published both books, and I think they owe Mr. Albom an apology.
A splashy book or music debut may be increasingly easy in the weightless digital world. Apple can't sell more iPhones than it can manufacture and distribute. A movie theater can't sell more tickets than it has seats. E-book and digital music sales make it possible to respond to demand instantly and infinitely, without having to plan, produce, ship and stock physical inventory. Bits are never sold out. Mumford & Sons fan base was ready for a new release and downloaded accordingly.
Less newsworthy was the fact that sales of Babel dropped 72% in week two (though still topping the charts). Social media had already moved on to tweeting the debut of a new album from Muse at #2.
Artist: 'Til Tuesday
If you read The Lefsetz Letter, you know that sales of Aimee Mann's album Charmer dropped 63% in its second week on the charts. If you're on social media, you probably know (and have re-tweeted) that the video for the single Labrador is a shot-for-shot remake, featuring Mad Men's Jon Hamm, of her iconic 80's video for the song Voices Carry. I know that I got my first CD player in mid-1985, and the album Voices Carry may be the last new title I have ever bought on vinyl.
© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.