MILAN, Italy -- Although R.E.M.'s new album, Up, debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200 albums chart upon its release five weeks ago, its sales and its chart position have tailed off every week since then.
But that's just in the United States.
Elsewhere in the world, the latest recording by the veteran, Athens, Ga.-spawned folk-rock band remains a top seller. According to Warner Italy, R.E.M.'s Italian label, Up already has sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide. The majority of those sales -- 1.4 million units -- has come from outside the band's motherland.
"Maybe Europeans are smarter," R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills joked, responding to the band's overseas popularity during a press conference in the Principe Hotel, the day after the group's recent, invitation-only performance at the Propaganda Club here.
Smart or not, the band's European fans rushed to buy Up, R.E.M.'s first effort as a trio without drummer Bill Berry, who decided to call it quits last year. The album went directly to the #1 chart position in Italy, Germany, Austria and Norway, while reaching #2 in the U.K., Ireland and Sweden.
It sold particularly well in Italy, where, according to Warner, more than 90,000 copies were bought in the first week alone. In the following weeks, Up passed from #1 to #3, then to #6 , climbed to #4 and then dropped to #8, selling a total of 150,000 copies so far.
"We didn't expect Up to go straight to #1," said a Warner Italy spokesperson who preferred to remain anonymous, "but we expected it to be well received. It's a good album, and we believed in its potential."
Up certainly shouldn't be looked upon as a failure in the U.S. In its first week of release, it sold 117,000 copies, according to SoundScan -- the company that tracks music sales in the U.S. But its downward trend on the American charts had to be somewhat daunting to the multi-platinum group and its U.S. label, Warner Bros. From its initial chart position of #3, it dropped to #16, then #33 and #63 in Billboard.
R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck said that the band was not really disappointed with the U.S. sales of Up.
"I'm not unsatisfied [about the American sales figures]," he explained. "I'd like to sell more. But there's not much I can really do about it. I think we made a great record. We're doing television and press [to promote it]."
R.E.M. were in Europe in November for a small promotional tour that included live performances recorded for local television.
Buck suggested that the U.S. marketplace may not be as friendly to R.E.M. as it once was. "In America, basically, it's all about rap and Celine Dion," he said. "It's O.K. -- we don't sound like that. If you want to buy a Celine Dion record, you're not going to buy an R.E.M. record."
Meanwhile, the band's manager said it's much too early to be drawing any conclusions about the new album.
"It's the very early days [of the album's release], first of all," Bertis Downs, R.E.M.'s manager, said. "Second of all, I think it's a really deep record, with not [just] one or two singles. It's not unlike [the 1992 R.E.M. album] Automatic For The People, which had six singles in England and only four in America. I feel confident that Up is a quality record, and it will eventually do fine everywhere."
R.E.M. sold more than four million copies of their 1991 album, Out Of Time, which included the hit single, "Losing My Religion"(RealAudio excerpt). However, they experienced a drop in sales with the predecessor to Up, -- 1996's New Adventures In Hi-Fi, which entered the charts at #2 in its first week, and sold 1 million copies total in the U.S.
"They don't really care about other peoples' opinions," Italian R.E.M. fan-club coordinator Alex Malozzi, 28, said after seeing last month's Milan performance. "They really care about their fans. That's what really important to the band."
According to Mills, different reasons -- including a multimillion-dollar deal the band signed with Warner Bros. just before the release of New Adventures in Hi-Fi -- might have influenced the audience reaction to that critically acclaimed album.
Whereas New Adventures in Hi-Fi featured a more traditional, guitar-driven sound, the band's new album -- including the current single, "Daysleeper" (RealAudio excerpt) -- finds R.E.M. experimenting with new sounds, styles and instrumentation, such as drum machines.
But Mills refused to connect R.E.M.'s new, less-organic sound with Up 's sales figures. "I try not to expect anything from sales, because if you judge the quality of a record from sales, then you're bound to lose your way as an artist," Mills said. "You can't make people like it or buy it. We're very happy with this record. I think we did a really good job. If it turns out to not be phenomenally successfully, that's not a problem."
"I don't know where we are, exactly, in the world of rock," Mills continued. "Maybe there's no place for us, but ... I don't worry about that."
As for the great European sales figures, Downs had an explanation.
"We've invested in Europe for years. [When the band started out], we would go to Europe year after year and play little clubs. From Out of Time on, we've sold more overseas than in the U.S. New Adventures In Hi-Fi was our biggest record overseas, so it's not a brand-new thing to have such strong overseas sales. Our fan club is one-third European."
In September, R.E.M. announced their decision not to mount a traditional concert tour to promote Up.
Instead, they substituted a series of invitation-only, low-key performances held throughout the U.S. and Europe and taped for national radio and TV broadcasts. R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe said these appearances are more about keeping in touch with the band's audience than about trying to increase the sales of the new album.
"We made the decision to do these promotional shows, so the fans would not be disappointed," Stipe said. "They can see us in magazines and on television. And we decided to do these smaller shows, because that kept it interesting for us."