Do iTunes Sales Show “High School Musical” Fans Breaking Free Of The Franchise?

In the doldrums of January 2006, several weeks after the annual flurry of post-Christmas music-buying, the iTunes Store was livened up by the sudden appearance on its best-sellers list of a bunch of new hit songs.

It’s not unheard of for the industry to drop new songs in the dead of winter by non-blockbuster, developing acts—but these songs were credited to a bunch of kids who’d never had a hit, or even a shred of major-label promotion.

Within a month, eight songs by this gang of toothsome newcomers with names like “Ashley Tisdale” and “Zac Efron” were on the Hot 100, the largest number of simultaneous charting songs from a single album ever. And that album, the soundtrack to the Disney Channel made-for-TV flick High School Musical, went on to become 2006’s top-selling disc.

The feat was almost precisely duplicated 18 months later, when the flick’s much-hyped sequel premiered. The High School Musical 2 soundtrack spawned seven simultaneous Hot 100 hits and was 2007’s best-selling album until a Josh Groban Christmas CD topped it in the last weeks of December.

In both cases, iTunes sales of single tracks served as early indicators: of the soundtrack albums’ blockbuster futures, and the movies’ repeatability and Zeitgeist-defining success. With High School Musical 3 nine days away from its premiere—in movie theaters this time—and the soundtrack album less than a week out, what are the early iTunes indicators telling us?

Call me an old sourpuss, but they’re telling me that, as a musical force at least, this franchise might be spent.

Maura and I talked talked here last week about how HSM3, the album, might do. We speculated mostly about how the core fanbase of tweens might receive the movie and its music while their parents are freaking about the economy; and whether the aftertaste left by the weaker songs on HSM2 might dampen enthusiasm for the third chapter.

But looking at sales of songs is a more straightforward, data-driven way to assess the health of the franchise. As musical events, the HSM soundtracks have benefited mightily from iTunes. In an age when virtually all albums come “unbundled”—sold, as per Apple’s policy, with the option to purchase most songs a la carte for 99 cents—the tween-centric soundtracks have been the perfect test of the flexible digital-sales model.

Kids only authorized by Mom and Dad to spend two or three dollars could cherry-pick their favorite tunes. Later, if they saved their allowance or begged enough, they could go back to iTunes for the whole thing. Within weeks of the release of the first HSM soundtrack, even while its physical sales were a bit slow, both its songs and the album itself were tops at Apple’s dominant digital-music store.

(I would also theorize that timing was a factor here. By January 2006, the iTunes Store was just over two years old and the iPod was just over four years old. Both store and device had fully penetrated adult commerce, but many kids were likely just getting their first iPods. It could even be argued that what Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms was to the compact disc format in the mid-’80s, and what The Matrix was to DVD in the late ’90s, High School Musical was to the iPod nano/iPod Shuffle, the first iPods cheap enough to justify giving to a 12-year-old.)

Both HSM and HSM2 were launched by the release of a pre-album single. In January 2006, the first soundtrack was preceded by the Zac Efron–Vanessa Anne Hudgens duet “Breaking Free”; it debuted quietly on the Hot 100 in mid-January 2006 (impressive enough, given its total lack of mainstream airplay beyond the syndicated Radio Disney) and had exploded in sales by late January, after the movie got its first few TV screenings. More than a month before the soundtrack went to No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart, “Breaking Free” was a No. 4 hit on the Hot 100, thanks entirely to iTunes sales.

The next year, with HSM already a known quantity, the release of the sequel’s first single was more of an event. In July 2007, one month before the HSM2 album dropped, leadoff tune “What Time Is It” sold 87,000 downloads in its first week and debuted on the Hot 100 at No. 6.

In the year since the release of the second soundtrack, the labels’ digital release strategies for “event” albums have changed. In a model pioneered by Lil Wayne and fueled by Apple’s creation of the Complete My Album feature, which allows early singles buyers to upgrade to the full-length download later, big albums are now preceded by multiple singles. For Disney acts in particular, pre-album singles are treated as mini-events, with as many as four songs dropped at iTunes every week or two in the runup to the big release date.

This approach worked like gangbusters this summer for the Jonas Brothers, who scored four big-selling singles in four consecutive weeks–starting with July’s leadoff track, “Burnin’ Up”–before dropping the blockbuster album A Little Bit Longer in August. Each of those songs sold solidly in the six-figure range, from 116,000 for “Pushin’ Me Away” to 183,000 for “Burnin’,” and none of those sales damaged the album, which debuted to more than a half-million in sales.

Understandably, Disney thought HSM was a similarly strong franchise and has pursued the same multiple-singles strategy in the months before the third soundtrack drops. From Sept. 2 through today, four songs had been released to iTunes.

And the results have been… um, not so encouraging. The first three songs—we don’t have data on the fourth, released yesterday—have been basically stillborn. First single “Now or Never,” credited to the High School Musical 3 Cast, debuted and peaked at No. 94 on the Hot 100; so far it has sold a total of 53,000 downloads in just under a month. The next two tracks—“I Want It All” by Ashley Tisdale, and another all-cast track, “A Night to Remember”—made no Hot 100 appearances at all. “Night,” which made its iTunes debut on September 30 alongside a slew of blockbuster single releases, sold a mere 7,500 copies (that number is not missing a zero) in its first week.

It’s too soon to tell how the newest single, an Efron–Hudgens number called “Right Here, Right Now,” is doing. (One would imagine since it’s sung by the movie’s two leads/heartthrobs, it will do moderately better.) Still, the numbers we’re seeing so far are a big comedown from both of the last two movies’ big hits, and from the Jonases’ more recent iTunes exploits.

One charitable interpretation would be that the multi-single strategy works fine for big single-artist albums but not for soundtracks, and that Disney will do fine the week after the whole soundtrack drops. After all, most of the first two soundtracks’ big hits were scored only after fans could sample the movies, when all of the songs were grouped together at iTunes under the banner of the album. For what it’s worth, that older strategy is still working for the Mouse House—just four months ago, the Joe Jonas–Demi Lovato flick Camp Rock had its Disney Channel debut and, the week afterward, spun off four simultaneous Hot 100 hits.

So let’s check back in early November—by then, the iTunes and Billboard charts might be awash in squeaky-clean singalong. But if I were at Disney right now, with the hard data I have already, I’d be nervous about the next couple of weeks.

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