No wonder pop fans are singing the blues. Radio sounds like a broken record. CD prices are heading off the charts. Labels are out of tune with the digital age. New acts fail to strike a chord with listeners. It’s time to face the music. The $14 billion recording industry, struggling through its first sales slump in a decade, faces challenges on several fronts, not the least of which is a tarnished image in the eyes and ears of fans who feel ripped off by greedy, tone-deaf bean counters. In 2001, album sales dropped 2.8% compared with 2000, the first dip since SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991.
The gap widened in this year’s first quarter, when sales fell 8.3% from the same period in 2001, far steeper than the 1.2% drop from 2000 to 2001.
Eminem’s return with his third album, The Eminem Show, generated some excitement, selling nearly 300,000 copies in its first two days in stores and, it is estimated, up to 1 million more this week.
But industry observers see few other sure bets in the near future. Even the once-robust current-hits CD franchise, Now That’s What I Call Music, is slipping, presumably because of a declining inventory of radio smashes.
While the tsunamis of hip-hop, grunge, rap-rock and boy bands drove sales in the past decade, no strong trend is galvanizing the masses. Billboard’s top 10, formerly an exclusive club for albums selling 100,000-plus copies a week, now accommodates acts selling half that.
Illicit downloading continues to chisel away at label profits, prompting lawsuits and generally ineffective countermeasures.
As for today’s music offerings, well, fresh bands grow stale overnight while The Beatles continue to sell quite steadily. In this singles-minded era, fans forge only feeble bonds with momentary artists.
“Rock bands have hits, but nobody knows who they are,” says Alan Light, a former Spin editor preparing to launch a music magazine.
“It’s the Nickelback question. They have the most-played song in modern-rock radio history (How You Remind Me), and you can’t pick them out of a police lineup. There’s no story, and it’s part of an enormous problem at the heart of the music industry. Artists are being prematurely dismissed or not signed in the first place.
“Part of me understands that,” Light says. “The obligation of a multimedia corporation is to generate money for stockholders, not to make the best records, and it’s naive to pretend otherwise.”
A frenzy of mergers radically changed the recording industry from a diverse collection of scrappy and independent operations to a monolithic corporate machine dominated by the five “majors”: Bertelsmann, Sony, EMI, Warner Bros. and Universal.
Embittered consumers and embattled corporations seem to be at loggerheads over blame and solutions.