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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Take a trip with me back to the 1970s. The record industry is big business thanks in large part to rock and roll and the buying power of teens who are now approaching their 20s. Rock and roll, which started out on independent labels for the most part, has totally been co-opted by the big companies who started signing everything with long hair and amplifiers in the 60s. There seemed to be a "throw it against the wall and see what sticks" mentality. But when things stuck...

In the 70s some bright soul made a discovery. Instead of spending time and money trying to promote dozens of records by dozens of acts, it would be easier to focus on a few huge releases every year that would be likely to sell in the millions. Thus, the blockbuster album was born.

Dark Side of the Moon. Hotel California. Rumors. Saturday Night Fever. All the way up to The Wall. These records were just a few of the decade's huge sellers. The Platinum album was born, which became multi-Platinum. Numbers like these weren't even thought of in the 60s.

Then something happened. Among other factors, disco went bust and popped the bubble the record industry was riding. Blockbusters weren't selling as they once did. Sure, the industry was still absolutely rancid with money, but the arrows on those projection charts kept point up while reality was leveling off and going down.

The problem wasn't that the industry was crumbling. Far from it. The problem was, everyone kept looking over their shoulders, back at the 70s. Back then it looked like the sky was the limit and no one was willing to believe they'd reached the top of the hill and were rolling back down.

So, they kept trying to rejigger the old formula. Sometimes it worked and they could cough up Thriller or Born in the USA. But even a mega-hit like Thriller wasn't enough to satiate the appetite of what was now the "big six" record labels.

They jumped on the compact disc bandwagon, coaxing consumers to re-buy all their old albums in "perfect sound forever" rather than looking forward and developing new artists. They killed off the single and forced people to buy entire albums.

By the end of the decade, the offerings from the major labels had become so stale that independent labels once again rose up and became dominant. This time around, the big companies weren't so slow to adapt to the new music, buying up pretty much every band or label that had an asking price.

But something was different this time around. The music had become more categorized and segmented. The audiences became smaller and more specialized. Someone into hip-hop probably wasn't going to buy the new Nirvana album. And though you did have your Jagged Little Pills and Cracked Rear Views, these were much fewer and farther between and acts tended not to sustain their marketability through follow up albums.

Meanwhile, rather than either accepting the 70s as an aberration or trying to discover new artists people would want to buy, the blame game started. First it was "home taping is killing the industry". Then it was the DAT will kill the industry. Then it was used CDs. Now it is mp3 and file sharing. It's always someone else's fault other than the companies putting out records no one wants to buy.

There's a phrase you usually hear in conjunction with "investment opportunities" advertised on talk radio. "Past performance is no guarantee of future results." in reality, the statement can apply to a lot of things in life. For if there's one thing I've learned in 32 years, there aren't too many sure bets, especially when it comes to the pocket book.

It seems this lesson was lost on the "big four" major labels.

Rather than looking at the 70s as a very good decade when a lot of factors came together and made a lot of people a lot of money, it seems the recording industry saw that time as the beginning of a period of endless growth. I'm no business major, but I don't see how this thinking is anywhere near realistic.

If you look at the 70s, it's easy to see that things were going to top out eventually. There's only a finite number of people who can buy your product, for one thing. For another, once the economy slows down, nonessentials like entertainment are some of the first things people cut out of their budget.

Above and beyond that, the music industry got infatuated with it's own success. Part of the reason disco caught the public's imagination was that it was something new. But the big labels seem to have forgotten how to create anything new. Because you burped out an Eagles record in 1974, doesn't mean you can keep trying to do things that way and see the same sales as you did.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Suing every file sharer from coast to coast isn't going to change the fact that the industry needs to get over it's sense of entitlement to huge profits and get back to trying to put out new and interesting music if it wants to survive.

Sidenote: I do believe mp3 sharing is hurting the industry, but I also believe it's their own fault. After forcing CDs on consumers, they killed off the single and turned albums into big singles (one or two good tracks and a dozen mediocre ones) while jacking up the price. The early days of Napster were, in my opinion, a direct response to this. By the time the industry decided to adopt the new technology for their own use rather than fight it, a generation of kids had grown up with illegal downloading and weren't going to pay 99 cents a track (with DRM restrictions) for music all too easy to acquire for free.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

The fact that there's a new Eagles album may be all the proof you need to back this post up.