NYCD: The Blog

Thursday, January 18, 2007


This week's #1 record on the Billboard charts, the Dreamgirls soundtrack, sold a paltry 60,000 copies, an all-time low since the SoundScan method was put into use to tabulate weekly sales in 1991. Six or seven years ago, 60,000 units sold in a week would put you somewhere around the bottom of the top 20. If the sky isn't falling in the music industry, it sure feels like it is.

People in the industry, and the people who write about it, all have their theories about why nobody is buying music anymore. A big part of it, certainly, is now that everyone has a computer with a CD burner, a lot of former music buyers are now simply copying their friends' discs. The closing of chains like Tower gives prospective customers fewer places to buy CDs, and it also results in fewer impluse buys. And of course there's the over-hyped downloading revolution, which, while still only a tiny fraction of overall music sales (less than 6% in 2006), is nonetheless eating into physical music sales.

Even though all those things play a part in what seems to be the slow death of the music business as we know it, I think it's something a lot more insidious and far-reaching than the question of how we listen to music. It's more about how we hear music, and why.

There are now 300 million people in America, and it seems like there are also 300 million satellite radio stations, 300 million band pages, and 300 million bloggers who write about music. Never before has the music scene been able to tailor itself to suit so many individual music tastes. Even Top 40 radio, which was designed to be all-encompassing, is itself fragmented into rock-oriented Top 40, dance-oriented Top 40, and so on. Listening to music can obviously be a very insular, individual experience, allowing us to create our own unique environments. It's why the Walkman, then the Discman, and now the iPod have been so successful. It's why niche formatting has taken over at radio.

But the emphasis on individuality has taken away something important, even vital, to pop music's success -- the communal experience. I don't think Nirvana is the greatest band in rock history. But in 1991 and '92, when millions of us were swept up in the grunge explosion that completely changed pop music for a few years, it felt like they were. It was thrilling to feel like we were a part of something that was bigger than our own personal tastes. Buying a Mudhoney or a Pearl Jam CD felt like making a statement -- screw the status quo, forget all the prefab trash that's been shoved down our throats, this is what speaks to me. To us. Because part of the excitement of that time was knowing that millions of people all over the country felt the same way and were listening to the same thing.

Even a few years later, when the boy band explosion seemed to negate everything that grunge stood for (and against), the spectacle of millions of teenagers squealing their lungs out over the Backstreet Boys and N'Sync made us pay more attention to the music, and instead of dismissing them as a bunch of pretty faces, we realized that they also had some excellent singles. It wasn't the same kind of communal experience as grunge was by any means, but it was an exciting time nonetheless.

Since then, there hasn't been a movement in pop music that could make music fans of diverse demographics and tastes all stand together and say "Yes, this is good." For all the great music that's been made in this decade, both popular and obscure, it's never equaled more than the sum of its parts. Nobody in particular is to blame, because it's damn near impossible to engineer that kind of explosion. It always seems to just happen spontaneously, and the record execs are usually as surprised as anyone when it does. But now, thanks to the fragmentation of the pop scene, it seems unlikely that we'll ever even have the opportunity to reach such a consensus again. Music is now engineered to reach certain sets of ears, and only those ears. No doubt there's a radio station on XM or Sirius that will play Beyonce followed by the Shins followed by the new Who record. But even that station will be designed to reach only the "eclectic listener" demographic or whatever they'll choose to call it, and nobody else.

People like Sal and me (and probably you too, if you've read this far) don't need pop phenoms to get excited about music and buy it. Music is our lives. We go searching for good stuff, be it old or new or in a record store or on iTunes or eBay. But there aren't enough of us for the biz as we know it to stay alive. It needs those casual fans -- for whom it takes more than just another Tuesday of new releases to get excited about buying music -- to take notice again. The people who got on line for Nirvana CDs in '91, and maybe even Backstreet Boys CDs in 2000, have gone missing. Is the apparatus to get them back still in place? Is the top 40 simply in need of a good, grunge-styled shakeup? Or is the mere idea of an across-the-board hit hopelessly outdated? Your guess is as good as ours.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


1:25 PM  
Blogger NYCD Online said...

That's me! (Except when I'm Sal.) What can I do for ya?

1:27 PM  
Blogger David said...

I couldn't agree more. Generally, the most exciting area of popular culture is the one discussed in front of water coolers and school lockers. At this time, television (whether it is Heroes or Desperate Housewives or American Idol) has it. Pop music doesn't.

A problem is that rock music has always been intimately tied to the identity of young people. It's unlikely that your friends will vilify you if you like Battlestar Galactica fan; but few teens have the courage to appreciate the Backstreet Boys when their friends are "grunging."

Unfortunately, coolness in music is usually associated with excluding the non-cool, but the most exciting times has always been when the best groups have also been the most popular.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Michael in New York said...

Well, three cranks and counting and I finally wholeheartedly agree with your argument that the pop music scene has become so fragmented that it's become that much more impossible for an act or music trend to conquer the world and capture EVERYONE'S attention. You might have also thrown in MTV as a glue that united people in the 80s and 90s and now doesn't even show music videos (an old complaint but truer than ever). It's no surprise High School Musical was the best selling CD of the year -- the Disney Channel shows more music videos than MTV and VH1 and the others combined AND they have a dedeicated radio station and they so dominate the tweens that all those kids do in fact feel like everyone in the world is watching HSM and listening to those songs and following those artists. Nothing else connects everyone except for American Idol and network shows like Grey's Anatomy and so those acts (Snow Patrol, etc.) are the big ones. I do think new music movement or acts can dominate again and when they do it will so all encompassing it'll make Thriller seem like a drop in the bucket. But it is definitely harder to make that happen.

1:13 PM  

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