Record companies used to have a formula, they’d cross tracks over from one format to another, ultimately ending up on Top 40 radio.
That doesn’t happen anymore.
Prior to the Beatles the music business was a backwater. Of course we listened, but there wasn’t that much money in recordings, music was the land of uneducated, although oftentimes brilliant, hustlers. But when the Beatles arrived, so did mania, and dollars.
Yes, the Beatles ushered in the album format. There were LPs before that, but they were just cobbled together creations of a hit or two and filler. But you had to own the Beatle albums, especially starting with “Rubber Soul.” And then came FM underground radio.
Of course there was FM before the Beatles, but it was a wasteland of classical and simulcasts. But when the government said you could no longer simulcast your AM programming on FM, the FM airwaves were cast over to innovators, ignored by the brass, who created a responsive listening experience that transfixed listeners and built hit acts, resulting ultimately in Woodstock, when the usual suspects were stunned so many people attended, and the resulting movie garnered even more acolytes. Proving, once again, the news media will tell you where you’ve been, not where you’re going.
And ultimately Lee Abrams codified FM into a hit format, labels were rolling in dough, which was decimated by disco, but then MTV came along to rescue everyone.
Ultimately, MTV played a smorgasbord of hits, records in all formats. If a video was aired, the record sold, and radio followed MTV. We lived in a monoculture, we all talked about the same tracks, with the CD arriving labels and musicians were rolling in dough, and then the internet came along and crashed the system.
And the music industry is still operating on an old paradigm.
It believes in hits. And believes hits permeate the culture, that everybody knows them, but this is patently untrue.
I’m looking at the Mediabase airplay charts in today’s “USA Today.” And you don’t see the Alternative or Active Rock tracks in the Top 40, and even most of the Adult Contemporary, and the Hot Adult Contemporary, tracks don’t appear in the Top 40. Almost nothing crosses over. Even though labels still believe this is possible.
Or they’ve joined the hip-hop train. It’s all hip-hop, all the time. You know, go where the money is. But the difference from before is this mainstream format goes unlistened to by a great proportion of the audience. All you’ll read about is how big Drake’s “Scorpion” is, but compared to the hits of the past, its penetration is de minimis. It’s not close to “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” it’s not close to “Stayin’ Alive,” it’s not close to “Billie Jean,” it’s a veritable sideshow, even though the press keeps telling us it’s the main show, but we live in a monoculture no more, it seems the only monoculture we live in is politics, we may not agree, but we know what the issues are, whereas music is positively balkanized, AND NO ONE WILL ACKNOWLEDGE THIS!
Oh, there’s a lot of complaining, about streaming payments and traction. But complaining gets you nowhere, that’s a rearguard action, and funny, since music, when done right, is about pushing the envelope.
And at this late date, whole swaths of the public are still not signed up for streaming services. We keep hearing about the horse race between Apple and Spotify, but not about those who’ve not yet adopted either of these streaming behemoths.
And the audience is crippled by the tyranny of choice. The more options you give, the more the consumer becomes confused and buys NOTHING! This is a well-established paradigm. A salesman should only show two, maybe three options. Given more, people walk out without a purchase. Which is why so many are overwhelmed and are not listening to new music at all.
And major labels’ tail is wagged by radio, they pray to radio, even though radio has a separate goal. Radio doesn’t care about music, it cares about advertising. They’ll air goose farts if people will tune in. And there used to be no other option, but now there is, with the internet, with streaming, but the labels still pay fealty to radio.
So there’s chaos in the marketplace.
In truth, there is opportunity, for those who go against the grain. Because everything’s easily findable, searchable, streamed for free online. So, if someone gains interest, they can check something out, even though getting someone’s attention is more difficult than ever before.
But the major labels just want hits, no bunts. They’re afraid of whiffs. They sign fewer acts. Take no chances. Kind of like movie studios, who played to a lowest common denominator and saw their thunder stolen by television.
So if you’re making genre specific music other than hip-hop, presently you can’t complain when you don’t break through. The door is closed. Top 40 won’t air it. No way. Nada. Sure, there’s an occasional slot for pop, but it’s thinner than ever before. And as we consolidate into this niche, more people are left out than are included, the masses go unserviced, to the overall industry’s detriment.
Sure, you can make it on the road. Sure, you can hype yourself on social networks. But you cannot get the big push, because the major labels are not interested, even though a giant segment of the audience might be, if they ever heard you.
Meanwhile, we keep hearing about the usual suspects. Dave Matthews was all over the news, he even appeared on the Howard Stern show. But the only place he appears on the radio charts is #6 on Adult Rock, which might be the backwater of backwaters, the smallest of the radio genres. And on Spotify, only eight of the fourteen tracks on his new album have in excess of a million plays, and only one has over two million, the lead-off cut, which has in excess of three million. And this might sound like a lot to you, but the Top 15 of the Spotify U.S. Top 50 have in excess of a million streams A DAY!
In other words, the Dave Matthews Band occupies a very narrow niche. With fans that support the band live, but the DMB is really just a bigger Phish. But they had a hit in the old monoculture, with airplay on VH1 and MTV and Top 40 radio, BUT THAT CAN NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN!
Where does the new Dave Matthews Band get traction?
Meanwhile, we’re overwhelmed with reviews and hype for acts that never make it, or when we listen to we go HUH?
And no one is on this.
It’s almost like we need a commissioner, to add coherence to the scene, because everybody in it is just flailing, operating under an old paradigm as if one’s cheese never moves.
There are unheralded acts that could hit. It’s not like last decade, now you could be great and not make it, there’s just too much noise in the channel. So you need a champion, but no one with cash and influence wants to invest and take charge, because they’re all playing the old hit game, like it’s 1985 or something.
The music will change, that we know for sure, it always does.
But in a coherent system, a new sound would trump an old one every few years.
But that doesn’t happen anymore. Now hip-hop rules.
“Despacito” made inroads.
But was ignored by the Grammys, old thinkers inured to the old ways, hell, they haven’t even caught up with hip-hop.
Left field hits will arrive. Country, like Latin, is burgeoning.
But will it cross over?
Now? No way.