While Simon Reynolds and Maura Johnston have both offered elegant, convincing theories as to why catalog sales have been beating current product over the last few months, Jay Frank at FutureHit.DNA offers a simpler, market-driven solution.
[Catalolg sales] have been going up for the last 2 years largely due to the return of the bins in the front of Wal-Mart and Best Buy stores selling older titles for $4.99. The prominent positioning at retail is now going to cheap, older titles thereby driving up their sales. Both Wal-Mart and Best Buy have increasingly placed their new music releases in harder to find places. My local Best Buy has the top sellers positioned down a regular aisle facing the rear of the store blocked by an aisle of hair dryers. Wal-Mart has been moving their CD racks to the mid-point of the media sections. You’d be hard pressed to get sales if it’s not in a visible place by which to sell the product.
As Frank also observes, newer music tends to be higher priced, as well. Few stores offer discounts for first week sales anymore (since they can’t compete with Amazon, anyway, why bother?). Reynolds and Johnston make good points, but I have a feeling Frank is closer to the reality of the situation. Convenience and price matter, and though people may be leaning toward the comfortable and familiar these days, as Johnston suggests (though when did they ever not lean that way?), when you put a bargain price on what people want most, anyway, it makes a big difference.