Wednesday, November 2, 2011

20th Anniversary Albums and the Changing Nature of the Music Industry

The 20th anniversary re-releases of Nirvana’s Nevermind and U2’s Achtung Baby, along with the breakup of R.E.M., made me think about the changing nature of the music industry. One of the major trends of the last 30 years has been the relative decline of mass culture and the concomitant rise of niche culture.  For example, as recently as the mid-1980s, the three broadcast networks still dominated the ratings and there were only 2-3 blockbuster movies per summer.  Nowhere has this change been more dramatic than in the music business.
After rock n’ roll emerged in the mid-1950s, singles were the dominant way people bought music.  By the late 1960s, following the success of works like the Beatles’ landmark Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, albums became the dominant medium.  Indeed, album sales outpaced singles for the first time in 1968.
The dominance of albums continued into the 70s and 80s.  Indeed, in some ways, the 1980s were the peak of the mass culture era in pop music.  Artists released albums, singles from these albums were released on FM radio, and videos of the singles went into mass rotation on MTV (yes, it’s true, they did once show videos on MTV).  As a result, albums like Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982), Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA (1984), and U2’s Joshua Tree (1987) reached an extraordinary audience.  Due to the combination of radio and MTV, some songs got massively overexposed.  To this day, I change the station when one of the hits off of Joshua Tree comes on the radio; I got tired of those songs in the year they came out.  Of course, regional, racial, and ethnic differences in tastes remained, but these 1980s stars reached a far wider audience than artists today.  Nevermind and Achtung Baby and R.E.M’s most commercially successful albums, Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992), were released at the peak of this period. 

 In the early 1990s, MTV pioneered reality TV with the Real World and these shows gradually became more lucrative for the network.  As a result, they eventually supplanted videos as that market diminished by the early 21st century.  With the emergence of the Internet, downloading became the way most people experienced music, as ITunes put record stores out of business across the country.  The ease of buying individual songs on ITunes reduced the centrality of albums and FM radio does not have the audience among young people it had a generation ago.  Consequently, the music industry is much more decentralized and it is harder for an artist to gain traction outside a certain niche. 
This is perhaps most exemplified by the two iterations of the charity anthem, “We Are the World,” written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.  The first, recorded in 1985 to support famine relief in Africa, featured a who’s who of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, including Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Steve Wonder, among many others. By contrast, I barely recognized the younger artists in the 25th anniversary edition, made to back relief efforts in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010.  I first thought this meant that I was getting old and out of touch, until Saturday Night Live satirized the lack of star power in the new version shortly thereafter.
Due to these trends, it is unlikely there will be 20th anniversary issues of albums from 2011 in 2031. I will have more to say about the decline of mass culture in television and film in future posts.

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