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The Year Music Failed to Blockbust

Or how Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, and more of pop music's biggest superstars became little more than a lifestyle condiment

When historians look back on pop music in 2013, I suspect they will gravitate to one word as a summation for the year’s events.

Delusion.

Before we get to the reason for this delusion, let’s revel for a moment in glorious self-deception. After all, this was the year of the carefully orchestrated pre-release promotional campaign, when albums were marketed with the all-in sweep of a $200 million summer blockbuster. And for a while, it was kind of fun. In February, semi-big time and über-silly rock band 30 Seconds to Mars declared that it was launching its new single into outer space.1 Outer space! And that was only a prologue to the year’s truly big albums. In spring, Daft Punk commenced a clever advertising scheme for Random Access Memories utilizing old media like billboards and enigmatic music videos that aired on Coachella’s JumboTrons and were subsequently bootlegged. We actually pirated commercials back then! Seriously! A few months after that, Jay Z appeared in a Samsung ad with a crew of superstar producer pals in order to announce the July 4 release Magna Carta … Holy Grail like he was Will Smith unveiling Independence Day 2. Remember when you were excited to hear Magna Carta … Holy Grail? Good times!

As the year wore on, the gambits grew weirder and more desperate. Katy Perry deployed an 18-wheel semi-trailer truck to trek across the country in order to promote her new album, Prism.2 Eminem stumped for The Marshall Mathers LP 2 by engaging in the most awkward nationally televised conversation ever involving Brent Musburger, Kirk Herbstreit, and “The Stroke.” Finally, Lady Gaga unleashed Volantis, also known as the world’s first flying dress, at a comically ostentatious press event–cum-metaphor for the record industry’s “fall of Rome” period.

The albums these shock-and-awe media sieges were waged in honor of were similarly outsize. And long. So, so very long. Arcade Fire’s Reflektor was presented as a double album. The Daft Punk and Eminem records had enough running-time tonnage to be unofficial double-album albums. Justin Timberlake released two albums in the same year that were long enough to each be double albums, which suggested that his primary influence was no longer Michael Jackson but rather Use Your Illusion–era Guns N’ Roses.

The most hyped albums of 2013 were intended to envelop the senses and overwhelm limited attention spans with extreme prejudice. Collectively they represented a defensive strike against the ongoing “accessorization” of music, where the latest pop product is used merely as a device to get people to spend money on iPhones, iPads, and other tech goods. It began with the pre-release marketing bonanzas, which were generally (and strikingly) analog-based. Like a character in a Daft Punk song, this year’s pop stars were digital-based organisms that yearned to be “real.” Because no matter how Internet-centered pop culture becomes, there’s still a common perception that something doesn’t truly matter unless it achieves a certain stature in “real” life. This is what necessitates a designation between famous and Internet famous — famous really means “real life” famous, whereas Internet famous is meant to denote “less than.”3 It also explains why Katy Perry felt the need to rent a fucking truck to advertise her record despite having 48.6 million followers on Twitter. More and more, pop stars seem to exist solely online. And therefore they don’t really exist at all.

Katy Perry The underlying goal of all this was to make a record release feel like a tangible capital-E Event. To put it in theoretical terms: If an album is literally large in terms of track listing and media presence, it could become figuratively large in people’s lives. At least it wouldn’t just disappear the second you stepped away from a computer.

Like I said: delusion.

Everybody knows that the record industry is in terrible shape. There are people living in nursing homes right now who can’t remember what they ate for breakfast, and even they are aware that consumers purchased far more music in the late ’90s than they did in 2013. So, I realize that the subject might seem blasé or that broaching it could appear tired. But bear with me. Just because you’re sick of hearing about this story doesn’t mean that it’s no longer important, especially if you want to understand the pop landscape this year.

Here’s a slightly different, somewhat more interesting angle at which to examine the same old dire situation: In early August, Billboard reported that album sales hit an all-time cumulative low of 4.68 million for the week ending July 28. That 4.68 million figure represented every single album sold over the course of seven days — for the sake of comparison, consider that ‘N Sync by itself moved more than half that number the week its second album, No Strings Attached, debuted in 2000. The previous record low had been set just one week prior, when sales checked in at 4.71 million. Overall, the record industry had suffered through five consecutive sub–5 million sales weeks, the worst run of business since the inception of SoundScan (and the dawn of accurate-ish sales accounting) in 1991. Up until that point, there had been nine weeks in 2013 when sales dipped below the Scarecrow Strata,4 compared with a total of 10 weeks from the previous three years.

I was curious as to whether the 5 million line had been crossed after the Billboard story appeared this summer, and was unsurprised to discover that it had been many, many more times. From early August to mid-December, the Scarecrow Strata was crossed 10 times out of 19 weeks. Of those other nine weeks, sales lurked in the low- to mid-5 range seven times, so the “victories” were hardly definitive. The most distressing stretch occurred in October and early November, when the sub–5 million slump once again extended to five consecutive weeks. Only this bottoming-out didn’t occur during the dog days of summer, but right in the middle of what’s supposed to be the record industry’s boom period. The Billboard albums chart in those weeks was topped by Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Pearl Jam, Katy Perry, and Arcade Fire — some of pop’s biggest guns. Perry, whose previous album had spawned five no. 1 singles, led the new worst one-week sales total of the modern era, when the number of units shipped dipped just below 4.5 million.

By the way, it’s not just that the market for CDs has imploded. After experiencing years of consistent growth, digital music is also on the decline. According to Billboard, digital track sales were down 3.4 percent in the first nine months of 2013 from last year; in the most recently completed sales quarter, it dropped 6 percent, which suggests that the decomposition has accelerated. While digital albums were up a total of 2.6 percent over nine months, they also plummeted in the third quarter, falling 5 percent.

So, yeah, news flash: If you derive income from the selling of recorded music, you are basically fucked. But, hey, look: a flying dress!

Lorde Again, I realize that this hardly seems like a fresh angle at which to examine the year’s music. It would probably be preferable for me to mount an argument about how the popularity of Lorde’s “Royals” and the implementation of Obamacare represented the triumph of the “normal” individual over the hegemony of the rich and powerful.5 Ownership as a vital part of music fandom — the outmoded concept that buying a record is an expression of who a person is — being hurried toward extinction is already widely accepted as inevitable and has been for years. It’s also considered a boring topic of discussion, and therefore irrelevant. Music fans tend to regard the implosion of the record industry like most Americans think about overseas wars — we know it’s out there, and it’s very likely bad, but we quickly grow tired of hearing about it because it doesn’t appear to affect us directly.

Here’s another different, somewhat more interesting way to look at this: The suggestion that we’re transitioning from an “ownership” model to a “subscriber” model seems wildly optimistic at this point — at least if we’re talking about “paid” subscriptions. Last week the New York Times reported that out of 70 million people currently using Pandora, only 3 million pay for the service. A similar imbalance between contributors and freeloaders exists at Spotify — 24 million users and 6 million paid customers. I guess it’s possible that these numbers will shift over time, and that eventually more people will pay than not pay. But is it likely? I doubt it. Consider that a person born in 1999 — the same year that Napster was born — turns 15 next year. In the next 10 years, the “pay optional” generation will join the national voting bloc, graduate from college, enter the workforce, start having kids of their own, and assume the lion’s share of the media attention. How in the world will pop as a business survive that?

I have no idea. And I guess I shouldn’t care. I’m not a shareholder in a major record company. I’m not personally invested in massive corporations turning a profit. And I don’t particularly relish turning a conversation about music into a meditation on math. But I am a music fan, and I can’t help but notice that the relationship that fans have with popular music has changed, and that this correlates with how technology has devalued and marginalized artists while also making them seem more ubiquitous and making their work more “convenient” to access. It’s not so much the record industry being in the toilet that’s noteworthy, but what this epic swirlie signifies.

The most prescient statement about the future of pop music posited in the last 30 years was made by journalist Bill Flanagan in 1989. Writing for Musician, he declared that “musical trends are now shaped more by delivery systems than any act. The next Elvis or Beatles may be technology.” That’s basically what has happened ever since then. Technology now changes shape and form with the same speed that the Beatles once mustered between mop-tops and Day-Glo military outfits. And it’s the latest technological gadget (more than any album or song) that motivates people to buy. “Music is an accompaniment, to add to your jog, your workday, your prep in the kitchen,” James L. McQuivey, an analyst for market analysis firm Forrester Research, told the Times last week. “But it’s not something you’re eager to pay for if you don’t have to.” Does this statement depress you? It depresses me. But it’s hard to argue against it as an explanation for the record industry’s woes.

I’m not as smart as Flanagan, and not normally in the business of making predictions. But I think this much is fairly obvious: The trend of large-scale pre-release promotional rollouts is about to be suspended (perhaps permanently), and the time of the “surprise album” is about to commence. Last Friday, Beyoncé released her new self-titled album at midnight without a word of advance warning. How the record was presented and how this presentation was perceived perfectly distills the public’s postmodern understanding of omnipresent marketing. In short, people understood that by not marketing her record, Beyoncé was actually being even more calculating than her superstar peers (including her own husband). And yet this understanding did not undermine the effectiveness of Beyoncé’s non-marketing marketing. In fact, the marketing was baked into the album’s appeal. By forgoing an elaborate advertising campaign, Beyoncé deliberately set her record apart, even though her non-marketing marketing was hatched in order for her record to achieve the exact same outcome as the year’s marketing-marketing campaigns.

Beyonce “I miss that immersive experience,” Beyoncé said in a video announcing the album on her Facebook page. “Now people only listen to a few seconds of a song on the iPods and they don’t really invest in the whole experience. It’s all about the single, and the hype. It’s so much that gets between the music and the art and the fans. I felt like, I don’t want anybody to get the message, when my record is coming out. I just want this to come out when it’s ready and from me to my fans.”

Beyoncé wanted her record to assume a central position in the lives of her listeners. She offered to “immerse” the audience in her music and give them a “whole experience” devoid of “hype” that technology usually deprives us of. But not even Beyoncé is a match for the new Beatles. All she can do is position herself in its jet stream. When people rushed to purchase Beyoncé from iTunes this weekend, they weren’t just (or even primarily) getting a record (or an experience). They were buying into a conversation. Beyoncé (willingly or not) was exploiting a glitch in the psychology of social media in order to strong-arm consumers into actually spending money on music. People may not be eager to buy a record, but they are eager to feel part of whatever cultural happening is dominating tweets and Facebook posts at this very second. This may require feigning a connection to a recently deceased celebrity. It may entail wasting two hours watching Sharknado. It may even depend on shelling out some shekels for an album. Whatever the cost, people are willing to pay.

This is why the release of Beyoncé was so ingenious: The window of time to talk online about any record, no matter how popular, is quite small. Interest in 2013′s biggest albums was normally exhausted by the time they were finally released. But to tweet about Beyoncé, you had to buy it immediately, just like you have to see a movie opening night or watch a TV show “live” as it airs. Every other pop star in 2013 tried to tailor their records for an audience they wish still existed; Beyoncé fashioned her music for the audience she has (even if it was sort of an accident).

So, I fully expect that the “Beyoncé model”6 will be the rage in 2014, since it seems to be a smashing success. Music will be falling out of the sky like formerly space-bound 30 Seconds to Mars singles. This will be the new delusion — a surefire magic bullet for getting people psyched about buying music until this also no longer works, either.7 Once the buzz fades, what will be left is a familiar and seemingly inarguable conclusion: Pop music has evolved into a lifestyle condiment. Technology can’t change this, it can only expedite it. This is not a new story. What changed in 2013 is that the endgame can be viewed with greater clarity if you choose to see it.

Filed Under: Beyonce, Celebrities, Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Music, The Year In Music

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland. He is currently writing a book on pop-music rivalries.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden