PASSION OF THE CRANKS: PART THREE
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 myspace.com 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.