Perhaps the most nebulous whine in fandom concerns a perceived dearth of good music. Roughly 27,000 titles are dumped into the marketplace annually, yet many consumers, particularly casual or older fans less prone to rooting out new sounds, grumble about a shortage and pine for the days of plenty.
The complaint: Record labels sign only what they hope will sell, jumping on the latest bandwagon and flooding the market with sound-alikes. Everything radio and MTV plays sounds as if it fell off the same assembly line. Record companies focus on radio-friendly and videogenic acts to the exclusion of worthy mavericks or experimentalists. They spend huge amounts on videos and radio promotion campaigns in hopes of an immediate hit. Acts that don’t strike instantly are dumped.
Gone are the days of such slow-building talents as R.E.M. or Neil Young, who were nurtured and developed to allow for gradual growth of a following.
“These days, you live and die by the hit single,” Light says. “Artists are not given an opportunity to develop. If you look at the careers of superstars like Bruce Springsteen and U2, it was three or four albums before they clicked. Now that labels are owned by multinational conglomerates that measure success in quarterly statements, bands need a hit the first time out.”
In the mid-’90s, following a SoundScan report that album sales were only half of 1% ahead of the previous year, trade association NARM and RIAA joined forces in a consumer research project. The consensus from record buyers: Too many albums contain only one or two quality songs.
“Compound that with technology that allows consumers to be song-selective, whether it’s surfing the Net or burning your friend’s CD, and this is a serious issue of concern,” Mayfield says.
The defense: Stockholders demand results, so labels are pressured to keep the hits coming and to winnow flat-liners from the roster. To assure exposure, they cater to the programming needs of radio and video channels rather than risk an expensive promotional campaign for an artist who falls outside the parameters. Nonetheless, labels continue to foster fringe acts and retain modest-selling veterans (such as Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman).
And contrary to the widespread grievance, good music is widely available, if not immediately visible (or audible).
“There is good music out there,” Light contends. “You have to find it yourself. Look at O Brother. The power of word-of-mouth is not diminished. Nobody in the business was smart enough to start that ball rolling. It happened on its own momentum. People know they don’t want what’s in front of them, but they will find a Norah Jones if they’re willing to turn over some rocks and dig around.”
The outlook: Labels have been long aware that radio promotion is corrupt and wasteful, but now there’s some initiative toward change. There’s a drive to devise alternate means of promoting artists through grass-roots efforts, Ã la O Brother, that circumvent radio and MTV. But the demands for quarterly profitability will keep labels hunting the short-term hit at the expense of long-term artist development.
“Something has to give at the distribution level,” Light says. “You need new machinery to get music out there, maybe the emergence of something not tied to the major labels. We’ll see a shift when someone cracks that end of it.”
Shalett says: “We need to reach beyond the traditional avenues of exposure. Fewer titles are exposed on radio. MTV is about less rotation of videos and more specialized programming. A bigger onus is on the record companies and retailers to break the mold of the marketing cycle.”