The Music Business: Singing Out of Key?
Thoughts by James R. Begley.
I don’t think that I am the only one aware of the fact that this is the first time since the seventies that selling a million albums is considered a big deal. I would like to take a look back at the last 15 years of mainstreamproduction, and see if there are any clues as to why this has become the present state of the industry. I may have to go back further than 15 years to find some examples of what started this evolution or de-evolution depending on how perceive the business as of late. Image may be a good place to start.
Back in the 60’s and 70’s when consumers would flock to their local record stores to buy the next big thing, the albums that were purchased a lot of the times didn’t even contain a photo of said band. That in itself, I think gave the fans of that time something that has been lost in music for quite some time, and that would be mystery. Not knowing what a group looks like immediately erases any prejudice one might have by looking at a cd cover and dismissing an artist because of their image, and in some cases it may actually enhance the listening experience not knowing what an artist’s appearance is. Even a marketing machine such as KISS, arguably the kings of self promotion, and visual entertainment toyed around with their fans knowing that information about the group at the time of their rise to super stardom wasn’t as readily available as it is now.
Information now is unavoidable, and in many cases the image of a performer is well known before you hear the first note. That wasn’t the case back then, and as with any business there comes a time when profits become way more important than the products themselves, and the need to produce more, as well as make more money begins to take precedent over whether or not the product is off any quality. The advent of MTV could also have played a part in how the industry has changed also. Whenvideos became all the rage in the early 80’s, MTV as well as the major record labels were scrambling to get their artists on the infant network. I remember when MTV first aired. The video selection was so slim that you saw the same 40 videos essentially on a loop, also there no commercials either, just videos 24 hours a day!
With this came a tsunami of content from all over, but mainly from Europe where television programs that featured musical acts were far more common than they were here in the states. What also came with this was an influx of different styles exhibited by these mostly unknown acts. New wave pop, punk, rock, synth groups, and classic well established artists trying to get in on the new fad! Once the music video became an integral part in groups reaching wider audiences, image became priority. Now everyone could see what the bands looked like and could put faces with names, as well as pick favorite members. This was a revelation for some, and a curse for others. It wasn’t too long after MTV became a standard that record labels began signing acts based on their looks as opposed to their material or talent.
This I believe is the start of a trend that leads to a theory I developed that explains why there aren’t as many albums being sold in the music industry as of late. If you just look back at the rollercoaster trends of the music business starting from 1995 to 2010 you may be amazed at how much money was spent, made, and lost in those 15 years. Even if you were to just go back 5 years you would see that there were acts that were selling in excess of 10 million copies of a single album. That presently seems like an almost unreachable feat.
The downloading of music and radio can also very easily thrown into the mix for reasons for this. Sites such as Napster, Limewire, and Itunes just to name a few have allowed consumers to buffet style there music choices without shelling out 15 bucks + for an entire album that they might not like. I agree with this to an extent. I may be different than most, but when an artist that I’m interested in releases new material, I want to hear everything they have to offer.
Radio in conjunction with downloading sites and MTV can also be viewed as an ingredient to the current plight. When the radio plays a new song from an artist and promotes it heavily as a hit it caters more to the singles market than anything, which is great for mainstream acts, but not so much for groups that aren’t known for writing popular styles of songs. Radio in some cases tells the listener without saying it, that there are only “these” songs worth listening to on the album. There’s also a lot of money being thrown at the radio stations by the labels for prime rotation and promotion of song as well.
At the beginning of the decade around 2000 there was so much money being made that some labels were buying the first million copies or so of their own albums so they could claim in the press that the release shipped platinum! But by the time 2010 rolled around those are just fond memories. I believe that in the wake of this, labels have taken on a philosophy of marketing products instead of artists. With shows like American Idol, which creates a guaranteed fan base and record sales, discoveries from Youtube, and countless other examples have shown that fewer chances are being taken. This I believe could start a cycle of diminished quality. I understand the reasons why fewer risks taken. The economy is bad, and people have a lot less money to spend on things such as records. That being said I do still have concerns about the future of the business. Has it become style over substance? It’s something ponder.
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