The fate of music retailers' holiday sales season may rest not with a country-crossover auteur or a hip-hop oversharer or even the King of Pop, but with a momsy 50-year-old Scot drawn to show tunes.
Yes, Taylor Swift and Kanye West will release chart-topping new albums, and a posthumous release of previously unheard Michael Jackson tracks should draw in loyal fans, but retailers once again are counting on Susan Boyle to drive the Christmas selling season.
"Taylor Swift will be big," says Jagriti Jaggi, category manager for software merchandising at the 34-unit Fry Electronics, "but we feel that Susan Boyle will be our No. 1 seller."
This year will have something for everyone, music buyers say. Acts set to release fourth-quarter albums include Kings of Leon, Rihanna, Kid Rock, the Black Eyed Peas, Akon, Josh Groban, Nicki Minaj, Cee Lo, Elton John & Leon Russell, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Darius Rucker, Zac Brown Band, Sugarland, Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban.
"We are locked and fully loaded," Universal Music Group (UMG) executive VP of sales and marketing Candace Berry says of her company's fourth-quarter schedule. "The star power is there, and we have a variety of genres and records that appeal to everyone from youths to adults."
Buyers are split, however, on whether this year's slate holds greater promise than last year's. Fourth-quarter sales in 2009 -- led by Boyle, Swift, Jackson, Andrea Bocelli, Michael Bublé and Justin Bieber -- totaled about 119 million album units.
J&R GM of media Sue Bryan says that this year's schedule "looks as good, if not better than last year's release schedule." Newbury Comics head of purchasing Carl Mello is less optimistic, saying it "looks like it may be [flat] to a little bit lighter than last year."
"There are things that are going to sell," Alliance Entertainment group VP of vendor managed inventory Cindy Barr says, "but I don't think it's an outstanding fourth-quarter schedule.
"Everybody is trying to put out older-demo records," Barr adds, referring to new albums from Groban and Carlos Santana, boxed sets from Springsteen and Bob Dylan, remasters of the Beatles' "Red" and "Blue" collections, the Cirque du Soleil-related "Viva Elvis," covers sets from Neil Diamond and Rod Stewart, the John/Russell collaboration and Christmas albums from Boyle, Mariah Carey and Annie Lennox.
Merchants are divided on whether Swift's "Speak Now" (Oct. 25) or Boyle's "The Gift" (Nov. 9) will be the top seller this year.
"Taylor Swift will be the biggest record of the fourth quarter," Barr says. "That's a no-brainer. She appeals to such a wide demo."
UMG is expected to ship 1.8 million units of "Speak Now" and is projecting first-week sales of 750,000 units, sources say.
Mello says he doubts that "The Gift" can sell like last year's Boyle album, "I Dreamed a Dream," considering it sold "300,000 units for weeks on end." Actually, it sold more than 500,000 units for five weeks in a row, including a debut week of 701,000 units. It has sold a total of 3.8 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Sony Music Entertainment has yet to make projections for the new Boyle record.
Meanwhile, merchants are skeptical on whether Jackson's album, expected to be compiled from studiotracks he recorded but never included on past albums, will top last year's "This Is It."
"Of course Michael Jackson will be a very good seller; we sell his music all year long," Fry's Jaggi says. "Anything from him will sell." But a retail executive adds, "I don't believe the Michael Jackson album will mean anything."
Here's a look at how some other top fourth-quarter albums are expected to perform:
Kenny Chesney's "Hemingway's Whiskey" (Sept. 28) is expected to ship about 400,000 units, with first-week sales projected at 225,000.
Kings of Leon's "Come Around Sundown" (Oct. 19) is expected to ship 350,000 units and have first-week sales of 350,000, including about 150,000 digital albums.
The Elton John/Leon Russell collaboration "The Union" (Oct. 19) has the backing of merchants. "It has a really good story and will get a lot of news coverage," Barr says. "It's a good record for the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss demo."
Sugarland's "The Incredible Machine" (Oct. 19) and Rascal Flatts' "Nothing Like This" (Nov. 16) are each expected to ship about 500,000 units and have first-week sales of about 200,000.
"Now That's What I Call Music 36" (Nov. 9) is expected to ship about 600,000 units, with first-week sales of about 125,000.
Rihanna's "Loud" (Nov. 16) and the Black Eyed Peas' "The Beginning" (December) are each expected to ship about 500,000 units and have first-week sales of about 200,000.
Kanye West's new album (Nov. 23) is expected to ship about 750,000 units, with first-week sales of about 400,000.
Nicki Minaj's much-anticipated debut, "Pink Friday" (Nov. 23), should ship 300,000 units, with first-week sales of 125,000.
Still, questions linger about how some highly touted fourth-quarter releases will fare. "Will Maroon 5 end up having hits?" Newbury Comics' Mello asks. "How will Santana do? Will Linkin Park have any legs? Do any records have legs nowadays?"
Meanwhile, merchants aren't sure how catalog will sell for the holiday. "It depends on the mood of the country," J&R's Bryan says. Key boxed sets for the season include John Lennon's "Signature Box," Dylan's "The Original Mono Recordings," the "Apple Records" set, Jimi Hendrix's "West Coast Seattle Boy" and Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town," also known as "The Promise."
Finally, retailers concede that overall, this year's holiday selling season will be down from last year's because of the continued decline in CD shelf space.