One startling fact emerged from the third-quarter music sales figures released by SoundScan last week: Not a single artist’s album has reached platinum status in 2014.
The Frozen soundtrack is the only album to have crossed the million mark, with sales of 3.12 million units, but that is an anomaly for multiple reasons (and it was a 2013 release). Aside from that success, 2014 has been so bad that the two top-selling records are carryovers released late last year, one from Beyonce and the other from Kiwi songstress Lorde. Both have sold in the 750,000 range, well short of platinum status.
While the decline of record sales has been heralded since the advent of digital downloads, this year’s figures are particularly alarming. At this point last year, five different albums had reached the platinum mark, including releases from Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake.
It is this bleak landscape that allowed Boomer rock stalwart Tom Petty, indie rock/blues revivalist The Black Keys, and even Weird Al Yankovic to all score their first No. 1 albums this year, not due to the quality of the work or the strength of sales but simply as the result of a lack of meaningful competition.
The problem is not limited to album sales, as only 60 singles have sold more than 1 million copies. At this point in 2013, 83 songs had reached that figure. Perhaps most alarming for the music industry is that this dip also has hit digital downloads and not just physical copies. Though Christmas sales are expected to boost these numbers significantly, the release calendar for the last few months of the year features few major stars that can really spur sales.
All together, the grim sales data are another sign of a music industry that is changing drastically, and along with it our notion of what makes a star.
Pop music has always been a young persons’ game. From the legions of teenaged Boomers cheering on Elvis and The Beatles, to modern kids making their own videos for “Happy,” music is always at the center of the modern media idea of adolescence. The industry knows this, constantly shifting to adapt to what the current zeitgeist holds.
But in the late ‘90s, the industry made a fatal shift at the exact wrong time. As it became clear that the persnickety Gen X-ers were suspicious and difficult to market to, the industry found the perfect audience in a demographic that became identified as “tweens.” The economy was strong and parents were lavishing money on their children at an alarming rate. MTV shifted younger, while the suddenly unstoppable Nickelodeon aged up. Suddenly, 12 was the new 17.
The problem was, while this new target demographic was decidedly less cynical, it was also more open to the technological advances of the day. The “Britney generation” (now in their early 30’s) would become the last to have nostalgic sentiment for “owning music” as a physical object. Subsequent generations will only remember the stream.
In 2004, people over 35 accounted for less than 30 percent of record sales. Today that number is 61 percent.
As the demographics of music buyers changes, so too does the notion of a pop star. U2, still sometimes referred to as the biggest band in the world, are all in their 50’s, Radiohead their middle 40’s. Beyonce, Britney, and Justin Timberlake are all well into their 30’s. Katy Perry and Lady Gaga both will be soon.
Without the concrete sales figures behind them, modern young music stars are more likely to be flash-in-the-pan buzz generators or that odd modern phenomenon, the celebrity producer. Consider that Pharrell Williams (who is 41, incidentally) produced and performed one of the few legitimate crossover hits of the year, as well as appearing on both of the two contenders for song of the summer 2013.
Or consider Charlie XCX, the British wunderkind who has worked her magic on the careers of both Arianna Grande and Iggy Azalea (if you know only one part of “Fancy,” its Charlie’s) but lags significantly behind both ladies in public recognition.
Sure, there are names you know, but both Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus seem to have already flamed out. Taylor Swift has become subsumed by a kind of culture war, casting her more in the Gwyneth Paltrow role of insufferable WASP rather than actual musician. And though Adele is only 26, her style is pointedly backward looking, granting her a somewhat older audience by default. Nicki Minaj, 31, may be with us to stay, but that seems as much by force of will as anything.
As such, the music industry is left a series of aging stars whose audience is aging with them, new stars with plenty of name recognition and little in the way of sales, and an entire generation coming of age with no memory of “buying a record” to look back on fondly.
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