2010 – The Year Music Went Pop and Rock Went Poof!

I had already started a post about the numbers showing just how badly live rock music did in 2010, and then analysts started tearing apart the top-selling music charts for the year and found some similar trends. I know, I know, rock is dead … long live rock! But given that the rock industry is very much powered by money, unlike the niche folk / jazz / classical markets which have gotten by on scant scraps for decades, these recent developments are a definite concern.

In his article called Rock and Roll (1949-2011), Marc Myers says:

According to an article by Ethan Smith in last week’s Wall Street Journal, the rock concert business is drying up. As followers of music know, arena tours were rock’s best hope at survival—and the proverbial canary in the mineshaft. As Smith reports, ticket sales fell 12% globally in 2010—largely a victim of high prices, declining interest on the part of young people, and the domination of senior-citizen rock headliners whose greatest-hits format has been experienced by the same audiences multiple times over the years. In farm terms, the land has been over-plowed.

As he notes, the 12% drop is worldwide, but was actually a 15% drop in the US! He discusses several causes: high ticket prices, older rockers dominating tours, younger musicians relying so much on studio and auto-tune that their live shows are terrible, the death of the big theatrical show (actually the move of such shows to actual theater groups), and an aging audience for the ‘old reliable’ shows.

Ticket prices are definitely a factor in my opinion: I remember spending $15 to see The Police and The Go-Gos back in the early 80’s for great seats. Now Ticketmaster charges FEES that high per ticket! When we went to see Pat Metheny a few months ago it cost about $275 for the four of us … and compared to most shows that is a bargain!

Why does this matter? For ages the maxim has been that a musician will do OK with record sales but to REALLY make money they need to have successful tours. More recently groups have used corporate sponsors to ensure that they make load of money. No matter how you look at it, a 15% drop is MASSIVE!

But wait … it gets worse! Remember how I had talked about the year-end numbers for 2010? Folks have dissected them, including Billboard’s blog.

What did they find? The only non-pop record in the Top 10 albums for 2010 was Andrea Bocelli’s “My Christmas”! That is including Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift and Eminem … but in my opinion calling them country, country and rap is only kidding yourself. Contrast that with earlier years – only four pop albums in the top 10 in 2009, and two in 2005! The blog also mentions that this is the first time in 13 years that the top two artists didn’t appear at all on the Hip-Hop / R&B charts.

They also note that “synth-driven, Auto-Tuned, four-on-the floor-influenced pop dominated the Hot 100” in 2010, with the vast majority of #1 songs in 2010 falling directly into that category, with a couple of Eminem , Rihanna , and other songs breaking the mold. Only Train’s ‘Hey Soul Sister’ broke the top 10 as a ‘rock’ song, though calling it that is somewhat dubious.

The AVClub mentions that things were equally bad in the UK, with the top single that could be called ‘rock’ coming in at #25 … and that was the Glee cover of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’!

It is also interesting to note that in this self-congratulatory and ‘bought’ era where it seems that every big budget video game gets a 10, and every hit song gets a Grammy, that is EXACTLY what seems to be happening! As Billboard mentions, back around 2000 when Britney Spears and boy bands like the Backstreet Boys ruled the charts, no one pretended they were anything but bubblegum pop.

Not true anymore – now we have Taylor Swift, who writes vapid lyrics, grade school songs, and can’t sing well at all, getting huge reviews and major awards. Same for Beiber, Gaga, Perry, Ke$ha, Black Eyed Peas, and on and on. When you have the same artists dominating the airwaves and the awards shows, it becomes a monolithic front that tells artists they have no chance of commercial success unless they align themselves with the ‘winning team’.

And that is what has happened – and is part of why things have changed so much in the last decade or so. Consolidation of power. Everyone knew that letting communications groups form regional monopolies was a bad idea, that is exactly what has happened. Radio stations lack any personality – they operate off the same 20 song playlist, so that when they play Ryan Seacrest’s America’s Top 40 on the weekend, everyone already knows the songs and there is no dispute about whether they belong there – and to be sure, many songs are NOT there because of sales. Note how in spite of Katy Perry selling more singles, it is Ke$ha’s Tik Tok that is routinely called the ‘#1 song of 2010’. Huh? Based on what?

And as I have mentioned time and again, there is a REASON songs sound alike – the same groups of people are writing them. You have the same management teams representing several artists, and you now only have a few ‘major’ labels dividing things up, so you have songwriting teams and a pool of production teams making each and every record. It is product, make no mistake – the same amount of attention went into crafting Ke$ha’s new release as did the new Chevy car rolling onto the lot!

And who do we have to blame but ourselves, really? Radio consolidation was a purely commercial event, done by our elected officials as a ‘kick back’ for election money. Piracy changed the industry, but as we can see the industry didn’t get the message that folks were trying to send – instead they used it to consolidate power, stop spending money on ‘art projects’, and make sure their product had a good ROI. And rather than protesting high ticket costs middle-aged folks came out in droves to hear folks well past their prime retread songs from decades past.

But wait … I thought this whole ‘digital music revolution’ was supposed to be a creativity enabler?!? Well, to an extent it is – I got a new recording from a great young bassist named Sam Trapchak through a service called YouSendIt today, and pretty soon was listening to it on my iPod. It isn’t out on any major labels and therefore not on iTunes / Amazon / eMusic yet, so this was a great solution. I have highlighted Jason Parker Quarter and others using different payment schemes, so there are other business models that work for creative folks trying to make a living playing music.

But let’s be serious – this is ‘getting by’ money, not ‘rock star’ levels of cash. More and more each year, if you want to do more than just scrape by playing music you need to look and sound like everyone else … and have the right connections. Oh, and save your money, because some of the other big surprises of 2010 were that fans hadn’t turned on folks like Ke$ha yet …

This doesn’t leave me enthusiastic for a great year in pop & rock creativity for 2010, but neither do I subscribe to the ‘rock is dead’ thing: I simply think it needs to be reborn again like it has so many times before. So let’s leave with a reminder of one of those times!

Categories: Editorials, Music Diary


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  1. Music Diary Notes: 2010 – The Year Music Went Pop and Rock Went Poof! http://tinyurl.com/5w6evx8