by Michael Goldberg
Monday, March 4, 2002
Ranting About The Record Business
It's no surprise major-label music sales are down the music sucks!
It's no secret that sales of recorded music were down for the first time in many, many years, during 2001. The slump a 5% drop has been attributed to a number of things, including Sept. 11, the economy and file sharing. However, I'm not alone in thinking there's another reason. Music sales are down because the music that is seriously marketed by major labels, and the music that is played on commercial radio and the handful of music television outlets, is, for the most part, lousy. You know, it sucks.
Peter Paterno, an attorney who was president of Disney's Hollywood Records for a few years and now represents Dr. Dre and Metallica, has two reasons for the sales decline. He told the New York Times: "Kids think music should be free. They don't pay for it anymore. And the music isn't so good either."
Damn straight! Does anyone seriously think that a song as great, say, as Prince's "When Doves Cry," if released last year, wouldn't have helped turn the album it was on (if that album was as good as Purple Rain) into a huge hit? That if there was a brand-new band that got major exposure and had songs as catchy and classic as those of U2 in their The Joshua Tree heyday, or Bruce Springsteen circa Born in the U.S.A., that music fans wouldn't be lining up to get the albums? Would the modern-day equivalent of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, along with a performer as charismatic as Kurt Cobain, fail to excite the kids in 2002?
During the mid-'60s, when a new song by the Beatles was released and played on top-40 radio stations throughout the U.S., the response was instantaneous. We bought the single; then we bought the album. The songs were amazing; they turned on most of the kids who heard them, and we had to have that music. It wasn't a choice. No surprise, then, that when a new generation 25 years later heard some of those same Beatles songs when they were re-released on One in late 2000, they responded in the same way; that album has sold over 7 million copies, and is still selling! That's what happens when a record company releases an album of great songs by a great artist and then markets the hell out of it.
Creed? Nickelback? No Doubt? 'NSync? Incubus? Linkin Park? Britney Spears? Staind? Mandy Moore? Blink-182? Come on. What's surprising is that any of that stuff sells as well as it does. For the most part pop music the music that gets the marketing dollars behind it, that gets the airplay, that is "sold" to the public and thus is the popular music of our day is third- or fourth-rate. It's like the invasion of the clones. Really bad copies of really bad copies of bands or singers that weren't that great the first time around.
Music sales have dropped because most of the music people hear on the radio is about as satisfying as a Big Mac. Unfortunately the main way we're exposed to new songs is via commercial radio, and commercial radio has only gotten progressively worse over the past two decades.
I suspect that the end result of the market research now done by radio stations is some of the worst radio programming ever. The goal of radio stations today is to keep listeners from changing to another station. The more innocuous the music, the more familiar it is new music that sounds like old music along with the old music the better. Radio stations want an audience to stick around for the ads, and ads are bought based on ratings. If ratings sink, the station brings in a new program director to get them on track. An obsession with ratings does not lead to great radio.
The best music is currently released on indie labels, with few exceptions. That's been the case for at least the past five years, and possibly for the past 15 years. But commercial radio almost never plays music released by indie labels. There are many reasons for this, some of them kind of sleazy. Radio doesn't look beyond the releases the promotion men in the employ of major labels deliver to the music director's office each week.
So you have a medium, radio, which has no interest in "good" music. And you have a record business that, for the most part, tries to sign artists who conform to what radio will play, and are innocuous enough to appeal to millions of consumers who look at music as a kind of lifestyle accessory, not unlike a baseball cap that can be worn backwards along with a cool pair of shades.
One of the problems is simply that the music business got too big. Once albums had sold 20-plus million copies (Alanis Morissette), the corporations' eyes got real big, and they figured it made much better business sense to focus on artists who might have a shot at selling 5-10 million copies of an album.
I've read, over and over, that major labels can't make money if an album sells less than a million copies. Why is that? Not because of recording costs. It's because of the huge marketing costs: the video budgets, the tour support, the radio promo budgets. "If the industry doesn't change the way we do business, we're going to be bankrupt," Val Azzoli, co-chairman of Atlantic Records, told Neil Strauss of the New York Times.
And so the system is breaking down. People don't want to spend nearly $20 to buy the bad music pushed on them. So they're not. Some aren't buying CDs at all; others are downloading MP3 song files or zip files of entire albums for free.
Meanwhile, there's plenty of really good music. Only you won't find it being released by the major labels. The really good stuff is found on indie labels such as Kill Rock Stars, K, Touch and Go, Drag City, Thrill Jockey and Warp. Somehow these small labels, which often sell less than 20,000 copies of an album, just keep releasing some of the best music we've ever heard. Weird, isn't it?