Vampire Weekend Plants a Flag at No. 1 for Independent Labels

The jaunty New York City band Vampire Weekend has this week's No. 1 album, with 124,000 copies sold of its new album, Contra, during the week ending January 17. The preppy quartet's Contra, which came out January 12, not only evicted the bad-girl pop star Ke$ha from the top spot, it also fended off viral-video sensation Susan Boyle, whose album I Dreamed A Dream is one of the two contenders for next week's No. 1 spot. More importantly for the industry, it signals more public appetite for an independent artist and label without direct links to giant media corporations.Boyle's album was the definition of a corporate juggernaut: an appearance on the Simon Cowell–judged Britain's Got Talent led to her rapid rise last year, and her album was released by Sony (SNE) Music Entertainment. Her potential return to the chart's summit next week follows an appearance on Oprah.

Big Box Competition

is released by XL Recordings, a member label of the Beggars Group, through independent music-distribution company Alternative Distribution Alliance, which is controlled by Warner Music Group. The ADA helps manufacture, distribute, and promote records by a wide swath of labels unaffiliated with the Big Four -- Sony, Warner Music Group, Terra Firma's EMI, and Vivendi's Universal Music Group -- and includes labels like Sub Pop (which handled Nirvana), Beggars Banquet (which distributes XL), and many smaller labels.

At a time when record stores are disappearing and big-box stores like Target (TGT) and Walmart (WMT) are often the only options for consumers to buy physical CDs, ADA's role has become increasingly crucial. Contra is the 12th independently distributed album to top the chart since May 1991: the start of the "SoundScan era," when music sales have been tracked via point-of-sale inventory systems (instead of the more fuzzy method of stores' reporting sales data). The last independently distributed album to hit the No. 1 spot on the chart was Pearl Jam's Backspacer in October.

January Doldrums

Vampire Weekend has benefited from plenty of media attention. Critics hailed the band, although its dubbing its genre "Upper West Side Soweto" irked some music-blog commenters. But Contra's success probably owes more to its sunny, charming pop than to critics' debates, or to the enigmatic anonymous portrait on the cover. The video for the peppy "Cousins" has been receiving airplay on MTV's digital channel MTV Hits, and it's been getting more spins on alternative-rock radio stations around the country.

Either way, the foursome has certainly broken the January doldrums that have taken hold of the industry in recent years. A year ago, the No. 1 record was Taylor Swift's Fearless, which sold a comparatively paltry 63,000 copies to reach the top spot. And in January 2007, the soundtrack to Dreamgirls moved 60,000 units to top the album charts, making it the lowest-selling No. 1 of the SoundScan era.
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