The R&B Malaise Continues: Sales Continue to Sag

Marsha Ambrosius, Friends & Lovers

R&B sales just aren’t what they once were – there’s just no other way to state it. When a major label R&B album is released these days, the expectation – save for a select few artists – is that it’s not going to sell. Sure, that’s a hella pessimistic view, but what has dissuaded such a viewpoint as of late? Certainly, R&B album sales in 2014, and the last couple of years as a whole, have done little to suggest we should be optimistic about the future of R&B sales. Even more largely, perhaps it raises the question about just how lucrative the future of the genre is itself, and that’s very scary.

Although R&B sales are down, one trend that is almost as equally upsetting is trying to compromise the style for commercial means. Yes, it’s as if this article is suggesting a “having your cake and eat it too” sort sensibility, but even if R&B is losing sales, somehow making it more ‘pop’ just doesn’t seem like a great solution either. Furthermore, artists who have adapted this electro-pop R&B direction haven’t really benefitted either.

Chris Brown successfully pulled off the electro-R&B feat on 2011 F.A.M.E, but don’t go so far to call the gold-selling LP ‘the second coming’ or rebirth of R&B music, Grammy or not. Brown would try the same formula on his 2012 follow-up Fortune album to incredibly subpar results. Add to insult the fact that Brown bumped up the arrogance on the LP and Fortune was plum unfortunate (especially for critics who had to endure that four-letter word).

Usher experimented with some pop on his surprising Looking 4 Myself. As a whole, the album wasn’t bad, but it also didn’t match the greatness of a tried-and-true contemporary R&B Usher album. Like Brown’s Fortune, sales ultimately were pretty unexceptional. Compared to other Usher albums, Mr. Raymond definitely cooled off in the sales department. These examples are to suggest that even pop-oriented R&B, which compromises the characteristics and cues of the genre is not the answer.

One last example comes via Jason Derulo, who has been successful to a degree. From the start, Derulo has established himself as a crossover between pop and R&B. Because of this, Derulo has had some high-flying singles. What he hasn’t had, particularly still bearing the label of an ‘R&B artist’ is a successful album. For all his singles success, Jason Derulo hasn’t had that home run LP. Yes, singles and digital tracks play a large role in sales these days and can’t be written off (ask Flo Rida), but what about the total product, the album?

Pharrell Williams, G I R L © Columbia

Perhaps the best R&B album in the sales department with some ties to pop is Pharrell Williams’ G I R L. Having one of the year’s biggest hits (“Happy”) certainly seals the deal, not to mention the resurgence of the preeminent artist. That said, even G I R L debuted with just 112,000 copies sold – not exactly the making of a hit.

But enough about pop and R&B mixing and back to hard numbers. Too reiterate, R&B albums, particularly on the major label, are clearly on the back burner. Call that statement a major understatement.  Major labels definitely don’t seem to be focused on aggressively promoting R&B artists anymore. That said, since the major label is about making money, it’s understandable they’d focus their attention where the money can be made. Still, it’s a disservice to the genre and some legitimately gifted artists.

Those R&B albums released this year simply haven’t put up the numbers. Newbie August Alsina sold 67,000 copies of his excellent, street-smart full-length debut Testimony, but the album deserved bigger numbers. Trey Songz Trigga, one of the years’ bigger urban releases, sold 105,000 copies, down from his three previous albums.

Others weren’t even that fortune. Tank’s recent Stronger sold a mere 17,000 copies good enough for a #13 bow on the Billboard 200. His previous album, This Is How I Feel, didn’t exactly electrify the charts, but sold a better 33,000 copies that were enough to secure a top 10 debut. Marsha Ambrosius suffered terribly with her sophomore album Friends & Lovers, also selling just 17,000 copies and bowing at #12. Her first album, Late Nights & Early Mornings bowed at #2 and sold 96,000 copies in 2011. Ouch!

So the question is, where does R&B go from here? It’s a question this guy seems to ask every year, but has yet to get a satisfactory answer – or even a couple of R&B albums going gold. But as it stands now, R&B’s current state seems to be the new normal. YUCK!

Photo Credits: © Atlantic, © RCA, © Columbia

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