Michael Jackson turned 50 this weekend, and I can't help but feel a certain irony there.
You see, as much as the Michael Jackson of 1983 symbolized everything about a music industry riding the crest of a perfect wave way back then, the arrogance of the way he called the last album he put out Invincible (despite circumstances proving otherwise at the time), epitomizes how and why that same industry finds itself barely on life support now.
There is a definite parallel there.
The record business Jackson's album Thriller did so much to revitalize in the early eighties is as dead in 2008 as Jackson's career. At least in the sense of the old school model that revolved around getting your song played on the radio or MTV, and having your album sold at an independently owned record store — or even a hip retail chain like Tower Records once did.
No big revelation there, right? The signs have been all around us for at least a decade if not more, so this is hardly front page news. You already knew that.
The fact is, we could analyze what brought the once "invincible" record biz to its current somewhat sorry state (and in fact we will probably do at least a little bit of that here just to put things into proper context) until we turn blue in the face. We could also debate to death the various arguments as to the merits and curses of retail exclusivity deals.
Ditto for the wisdom (or lack thereof) behind how and why the business once again became driven by the single song (thanks to MP3s, iPODs, and the like), as opposed to the full length album for the first time since at least the early sixties.
But rather than content ourselves with merely repeating a long laundry list of the causes which many of you reading this already know all too well, I'd like to open this up a little. Since we've already got a pretty good idea of what got us here, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at where we could be headed next.
There is a very interesting article in the current issue of Rolling Stone that once read between the lines, actually offers clues to both questions (what brought us here and where we may ultimately be going).
On the surface, the article is about the lineup of big releases that the labels will be rolling out this fall. To that end, get ready for new albums by Metallica, AC/DC, U2, Eminem, Beyonce, and maybe even that ten years in the making Axl Rose album being pimped out as a new Guns N' Roses release.
But just as everyone is about to jump for joy at the promising slate of fall releases (particularly in light of a year three fourths gone now, that has provided little in the way of true star power), leave it to Fall Out Boy's manager Bob McLynn to burst that bubble with the following quote:
"Everyone's trying to put out a record while they still can. Who knows if you still can put out fucking records a year or two from now? Is it going to be online only? Is it going to be singles?"
So much for at least one potential answer to the question of where things may be headed.
What makes the Rolling Stone article really interesting however, is the way it shows how record label executives continue to carry on with an arrogant business as usual sort of nonchalance. Even as the walls of their ivory towers in New York and Los Angeles are crumbling all around them, they remain soporifically oblivious.
The days of multi-platinum smashes like Thriller, Hotel California, or Born In The USA are long gone, and don't look to be coming back anytime soon. Many of the biggest album sellers this year — Kid Rock, Jonas Brothers, Mariah Carey — aren't even double platinum (two million sold). Even more telling is the number of artists — Nas and Sugarland for example — perceived to have produced a hit album that hasn't even sold a million.
Neil Diamond, love him or hate him, is certainly an icon and arguably one of the most successful songwriters ever.
On the surface, Diamond's latest release Home After Dark has everything going for it. It's produced by Rick Rubin, arguably the hottest knob twister in the business (go ahead, name a producer who's hotter right now). It's not only Diamond's "comeback," but believe it or not, it's also the first #1 album of his entire career. All of that, and Home After Dark hasn't even sold 500,000 copies — the magic number for a certified gold record.
Not only do the days of the blockbuster multi-platinum seller appear to be gone forever — platinum and gold records themselves may not be far behind. So in the light of such statistics, as well as the increasing dominance of the mostly singles-driven MP3 format, when Fall Out Boy's manager muses aloud that we be may a year or two away from no more full length albums period, it becomes a statement not nearly as unthinkable as it first sounds.
Incidentally, I must give credit where credit is due for the above statistics about record sales. You can verify these for yourself by checking out a website called the The Lefsetz Letter.
Bob Lefsetz — the guy who runs and writes everything at this site — also publishes an e-mail newsletter which you can subscribe to there. Word of warning though. If you don't like seeing your mailbox fill up both daily and quickly, I'd advise against a subscription, because Lefsetz is nothing if not prolific. But if you are either as concerned, fascinated, or both by these things as I am, he comes highly recommended.
Like your Rockologist here, Lefsetz is a guy who is not at all afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve. He clearly misses much about the way the record industry did business for decades, but he also correctly recognizes how things like their greed, their ignorance, and their excesses ultimately were all contributing factors to the implosion he sees now. Indeed, Lefsetz at times comes off in a sinfully gleeful manner, thumbing his nose at them in that sort of "nyah, nyah, told ya' so" way.
But he also recognizes the writing on the wall. He may not like seeing yesterday's radical rock stars practically tripping over each other today to sell out to WalMart deals or Ford Truck advertisements. But he rightfully sees them for the economic necessities they've become in the industry's present climate.
If Music Television (MTV) no longer plays actual music, and radio formats have become so restrictive there's little room for Springsteen and Mellencamp on the one side, or Radiohead on the other, an artist who wants his music to be heard has to get creative.
On the other side of the spectrum, the internet is so wide-open it becomes a "format" where anyone can get airplay, but without the repeated plays that constitute any kind of physical rotation. It's great for a garage band who otherwise might not be heard at all. But for a band or artist who is either already established, or may once have been, it amounts to searching for a needle in a haystack.
Anyway, Lefsetz understands these things. Which is probably why in his current newsletter he has a suggestion for Axl Rose — or excuse me "Guns N' Roses" — if and when they actually put Chinese Democracy out.
Forget an exclusivity deal with WalMart or Best Buy. Forget a name your own price download stunt a la Radiohead. Lefsetz instead suggests Axl finds a corporate sponsor like a soft drink company willing to pony up say $25 million for the right to give the damn thing away.
You heard me right Pepsi Cola. Gibbit, Gibbit, Gibbit All Away.
If you think about it, this actually makes perfect sense. Axl gets paid. The soda pop company gets roughly the same advertising exposure (or more) as they would from a sixty second spot during the SuperBowl for a comparable price tag. The fans meanwhile get the music free, which the age of the internet and downloads has taught them — rightfully or otherwise — is their God given right.
So how did it all come to this? The record companies will tell you it's all because of that great double headed Satan called the internet and downloading. My own feeling about the reality is that somewhere along the way these same labels began to get a little too comfortable and complacent.
As they charged higher and higher prices for their product, believing in a ride they thought would last forever and, like Michael Jackson, in their own "invincibility," they also became short sighted.
Choosing the quick nickel over the slow dime, they stopped developing artists for the long haul, and turned to pretty faces and the flavor of the minute. They also released albums with maybe three good songs out of twelve, while maintaining or even raising list prices. Meanwhile the frontlines of music retail saw none of that revenue — and got shortchanged in terms of having anything added to an already razor thin profit margin.
What their lobby group, the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) calls piracy, the music consumer sees as the viable alternative to shelling out fifteen bucks for an album which may yield only one good song. With the price of gas and all the other gifts that eight years of Bushonomics has brought us, you tell me which is your choice.
As a guy who grew up going to record shops, and pouring over the liner notes and lyric sheets found on albums like Blood On The Tracks and Quadrophenia, it's sad to see all of this going away. As a guy who also enjoyed watching the dizzying multi-platinum success of people like Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, or even a one-shot like Peter Frampton, and admittedly enjoying a few of the excesses that followed, I'm also saddened to see the industry I worked in and loved so much for so long putting so many good people out of work these days.
But if it's an open question whether or not someone like U2 can even hit two million this next time out — and like it or not that's the reality — there can be little doubt that the party really is over.
Invincible? More like Inevitable.