The Tangled Web

The Web's Most Intriguing Music-Related Issues & Destinations. This Week: Digital Sales & Yesology.

HOT DIGITAL TRACKS: Digital tracks are outselling physical singles by a growing margin, a sign that consumers are increasingly embracing the brave new world of Internet downloading. Digital downloads were outselling physical singles 857,000 to 170,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan figures, for the week ending Oct. 26. That's slightly more than a 5 to 1 ratio.

Sean Ryan, VP of music services at RealNetworks, says that the rise of digital track sales carries a "symbolic significance," illustrating the music industry's shift to online delivery options. He also says it indicates a real opportunity for the music business to sell digital tracks: "Selling individual songs as an offline strategy wasn't working all that well, but online it can be a huge hit."

Nielsen SoundScan data indicates that the trend has been evident for several weeks.

Although physical singles still outpace digital tracks in year-to-date sales, the latter outsold the former 5.3 million to 3.6 million from the last week of June-when Nielsen SoundScan began tracking digital downloads-through the end of the year's third quarter, Sept. 30.

Still, the biggest-selling physical single continues to outsell the top digital track. This week's top commercial single, "I Can Only Imagine" by Mercyme (INO/Curb), sold 6,900 units. Online leader "Hey Ya!" by OutKast (Arista) rang up sales of 4,700.

OutKastMost of the growth in the digital-tracks market can be attributed to the rise of PC sales-particularly from Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store. This is the first week that reported sales include a full week of PC downloads through iTunes. The 857,000 tracks sold marks a 25% increase from the prior week, when 685,000 tracks were sold.

PC purchases through iTunes made an even more dramatic impact on digital track sales the week before, with only a partial week of sales reporting. Following the debut of iTunes on the PC, which came in the middle of the Nielsen SoundScan reporting period that ended Oct. 19, digital track sales jumped 70% to 685,000 from 406,000.

The gap between physical and digital has been narrowing as weekly sales for the most popular digital tracks continue to grow. On the Billboard Hot Digital Tracks chart, each of the 25 tracks ranked last week were purchased more than 1,000 times -- a first. (In all, 32 songs were sold more than 1,000 times last week). In another first, two songs on the Hot Digital Tracks chart this issue posted sales of more than 4,000 -- the aforementioned "Hey Ya!" and "Stacy's Mom" by Fountains of Wayne (S-Curve/EMC), which sold just shy of 4,100 copies. Prior to this week, only one track had sold more than 3,000 times in a week. That was "Hey Ya!" in the prior week, which was purchased 3,700 times.

Growth of digital track sales comes as consumer interest in commercial online music services is growing and more players are moving into the market. But many sales and distribution executives at the major labels contend that contrasting digital track sales and physical singles sales isn't a straight comparison: only a limited number of singles are available to sell, while online consumers have access to a universe of more than 500,000 tracks at 99 cents each.

But whatever the comparison, label and technology executives say the growth of track sales online shows that the industry is starting to fulfill a consumer demand that previously was only being met by unlicensed, free peer-to-peer networks.

Peter Csathy, president of San Diego-based MusicMatch, says, "There's a palpable feeling that this is the time. The business now has entered into the public consciousness."

YesJUST SAY YES: With a 35-year history, tumultuous lineup changes and a penchant for lengthy, complex musical compositions, British prog-rock group Yes can be a little daunting to newcomers. But the College of Southern Idaho is out to make the act more accessible.

Last week, the school's O. Gary Lauer launched Yesology, an online course that's open to all and walks enrollees through the band's history.

"The musicianship of Yes is just outstanding," Lauer tells "The Beatles set the standard for the short-form composition in popular music; Yes established the long, epic form."

Lauer created the course with friend Alan Farley. Prospective students need only pay the $29 enrollment fee and can complete the class at their own pace through a password-protected Web site. "Yesology," according to the class outline, "is a self-paced online course that provides the uninitiated new listener with a sturdy platform to explore the dynamic music of Yes while stimulating the interest of the already dedicated Yes fan."

Yesology is organized chronologically, and students move through the course by downloading the "lecture" -- generally a three- or four-page PDF. Each lecture comes with a correlating study guide, and then it's on to the test. Yesology has 81 tests, all of which are administered online and will tally a student's grade.

"We didn't get into a lot of the personality issues," Lauer says. "With 15 line-ups, there were issues that brought them together and broke them apart, but we wanted to make sure that we dissected this 35 year period to show what happens to something like Yes. I think it's rather analytical. We've broken it down into periods, lineups and albums."

Lauer and Farley have been careful to see that their course earns the Yes stamp of approval. "We approached it with the highest Yes ethical standard," he says. "We wanted to make sure we really did paint them in the most positive of light. When Yes went to Australia, Alan was able to meet with them, and he gave them a rough draft of the course. He actually gave Roger Dean, the famous Yes cover artist, a copy of the course. We got word back from Dean that [singer] Jon Anderson's wife was reading Yesology on the plane."

The course took the pair about a year to design, and is Lauer's first foray into teaching music. His regular job at the college entails directing the school's "radiologic technology" department. For Lauer and Farlay, the course represents a lifelong obsession with Yes, and the two have been busy promoting Yesology throughout the Web.

"Over the last couple weeks we've been accessing, and we started a thread there and have been getting all kind of positive feedback. The whole darn 3,000 people in the Yes forums say they're enrolling in this."

While Yesology isn't equipped to handle audio clips, the course points to online retailers who offer 30-second Yes snippets. This, of course, has its drawbacks, as Yes songs are often full of directional changes. Lauer is already thinking like an entrepreneur. "This might actually be a new way of marketing rock groups," he says. "If you can teach people something about the groups, and then point them to places where they can obtain the catalog, you're getting them to a point where they may buy something."