There was a time when new music made the record industry go ’round. Potentially labels would make more money from a young artist that they “broke” than from established artists on their roster. These acts would get signed relatively cheaply. They were usually tied up for two or three albums with lower recording budgets, smaller advances, lower royalty rates for the acts and no guarantee of marketing monies. So, if something clicked, there was a lot of room for profit for the label. More often than not, their “creative” accountants would discover that after all the money the label spent, there was little or none due the acts. After all, a vast majority of the marketing and promotional tools were recoupable. That means the act would have to sell a lot of records just to break even, in the eyes of the label. Once the label is made whole, the artist gets paid. Now labels are forced to settle for single sales. A configuration that was near extinct 10 years ago is now the most important thing on the mind of label execs. The only difference is that the singles are digital downloads. These numbers too will dwindle as streaming takes hold. What will be left?
There was a time when people cared about new music. A new Bruce Springsteen album was an event for millions. New music from major artists, Streisand, James Taylor, Elvis Costello, Van Halen, Michael Jackson and dozens of others were EVENTS. That is not the case anymore. Not just for these artists, but for almost all artists.
Unless you are about 15 years old and you are waiting for the next Justin Bieber album, there is little new music that has any cache. The buzz only lasts for a week or two at best, for even the most successful albums. Billboard changed its methodology about 20 years ago when Soundscan was brought to the industry. Soundscan calculates the number of albums sold each week. It is not exactly a precise count, but it is more precise than anything that was in place before. As a result, the first week is almost always the best week for a new record. When a project is launched, almost all the marketing money is spent in the first week. The campaign is front-loaded. After that all that is left to do is prop it up until new-believers come on board. Records almost never march up the sales charts anymore, they fall down the chart.
Most of the time it is a precipitous drop. Old line acts like Springsteen can expect to lose in excess of 50% of their sales after the first week. Usually by the third or fourth week the album is barely hanging on in the Top 50. Essentially its useful lifespan has ended. Labels will spend little or no money on marketing at this point. Occasionally something like a major TV appearance or major tour will take place, so more money may be allocated. But that doesn’t happen very often any longer and seems not to have much impact at all on the overall sales of a project.
As a result, it is hard to find out about new music if you don’t listen to Top 40 radio. The main reason is that people don’t seem to want to hear new music any more. Most people seem to want to hear familiar music these days. Radio listenership has been in a steep decline for years now. Once vital radio formats like Alternative, Active Rock, or Rock hardly have any impact on the general marketplace. Not long ago it seemed that if someone had a #1 song at one of these formats it felt like everyone knew the song. That is no longer the case. Relatively few people listen to these formats these days. Their TSL (time spent listening) is also way down. Most listening is confined to the car or in the morning when folks are getting ready for work. Morning drive is also dominated by “personalities” not music. This is the negative affect that Howard Stern and a few others had on radio and music in general. Their popularity forced music off the air in the most listened to part of the day. Howard was hugely successful and there were dozens of copycats to follow. All of which forced music to the background. Do you really leave the radio on and turn off the TV at night? I don’t know if there is research to prove this, but my sense is that very few people listen to the radio at home any time besides the morning.
As a result almost all artists, outside of pop and some urban artists, put records out in a vacuum. Elvis Costello put out a great record with the Roots last Tuesday. How many people actually know that? John Mellencamp released a soundtrack to a play that he and Stephen King have been working on for over a decade, called “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County”. I’ve seen a few readthroughs and heard the music in several forms over the last few years. It is a good play and some of the songs are among the best John has written in a while. No one knows about this project. Bruce Springsteen’s last record had a buzz for about a week. Lots of talk and airplay on E Street Radio on Sirius, but very little anywhere else.
Elvis Costello & The Roots “Wise Up Ghost” live at the Brooklyn Bowl, September 2013
Sheryl Crow, Taj Mahal and Phil Alvin “Home Again” from John Mellencamp and Stephen King’s “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County”, produced by T-Bone Burnett (this video has less than 2,000 views!)
Bruce Springsteen “Death To My Hometown” Isle of Wight
As a rule, Classic Rock Radio, does not play new music. Despite the fact that they might play ten Springsteen songs, Mellencamp songs, Bob Seger songs, when these artists put out new albums, they get no play at the format. Most of our favorite artists from our youth still put out new albums. It is just that they get practically no attention, outside of the press. Tom Petty recorded an album several years back that featured a song called “Saving Grace”. It is one of the best songs Petty has ever recorded, but got zero attention.
Younger artists have the same problem getting attention. It costs a lot to get songs played on the radio these days. Even when they do get played, it seems that only a fraction of the people who used to find out about new bands, seem to learn about the latest crop. Awol Nation is a band on Red Bull Records. By contemporary standards they have been extremely successful. They can tour and play before decent crowds. They have released one full project and one re-mix album in almost three years. They are really still working the first album. But they are still relatively unknown to the masses.
Awol Nation “Sail” http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gH2efAcmBQM
So in general, why is new music not as important as it used to be. Are we too busy? Is it too hard to listen to new music? It takes work to discover new music. Human nature seems to draw our finger to the remote or the mouse or the button on the car’s audio system and makes us change the track once we hear something unfamiliar. Perfect example, I love Amos Lee. He has a new single out. I get a posting every day or so on Facebook, urging me to listen to his new single. I listened today for the fist time. I got about a third of the way through. It is not a bad song, I just didn’t have the patience or the attention span to actually listen all the way through. It didn’t seem like a bad song. It will just take me a while to get to it. I have no idea why. It is just that way.
Amos Lee “Man Who Wants You” live on Jay Leno http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUW0xnZPuPw
Several months ago I played golf with T-Bone Burnett. Over lunch Henry said that he had just finished Elton John’s new album. He said it was the best album that Elton had done in decades. We got a taste of it during last night’s Emmys, as Elton premiered the first single from the album “Home Again”. It sounded terrific. In the past, a launching pad like that would make all the difference in the world. Today there is little buzz around Elton’s appearance. It is not Elton’s fault. These things just don’t seem to matter anymore. Labels and artists put huge emphasis on events like this or Super Bowl appearances to launch or sell projects. Special performances no longer seem to have the impact that they did even a few years ago. Why is that? I don’t know the answer, perhaps you can give me your thoughts. Yet labels spend enormous sums of money to do these things.
Here is Elton John performing Home Again on the Emmy’s, September 22, 2013
Our society has created a monster. We need instant gratification. It happens with everything. Netflix had a huge hit with “House of Cards” last year. Why? Because they posted all the episodes at one time. You could see the entire series in a weekend. You either got hooked or you didn’t. The best parts were that there were no commercials and you didn’t have to wait a week to see what happens next. A brilliant idea that will be repeated time and time again.
The worst part of all of this is that we are cannibalizing our future. Is there a future for rock music? I think not. In all probability our grand children will view Springsteen, Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd and the other greats of our time as we viewed Crosby, Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Music that had its time. I don’t know about you, but I was well into my 20’s before I learned to appreciate Sinatra. I still haven’t got the passion for much of the music of the 40’s, like Crosby. These fans are literally dying as will we. It is like a snowball rolling down a mountain. Perhaps it is just natural that things happen this way.
Hopefully, something will come along to stem the tide and new artists and older artists alike will find a way to get exposure and survive into the next generation. Right now I just don’t see how it will happen.