CLASSIC: Why 401(k) pop stars rule the world

New York magazine published an article way back in early June that has been sitting open-faced, reverse-folded on the couch (in the other room, the one I rarely sit on) for about a month now, since I read it.  The writer is essentially trying to figure out how the tables have turned as it regards fandom of movie stars versus music stars.

The success of the 2013 crop of pop stars is inextricably linked—creatively and commercially—with their ability to communicate directly to and with audiences on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the like.

At the same time, there are fewer movie stars capable of selling tickets just by the power of their own brand.  A few conclusions are thrown around, including in the comments of the online article, but I think it really comes down to the lightning speed of the newscycle today.

While the record labels haven’t yet given up on releasing full albums and riding the (now non-existent) wave of publicity it perpetuates for a year or more, managers and stars themselves have realized that maintaining a presence online to the fans incrementally contributes to the payday out on the road.

Because the tour is where the money is now.  The labels used to run the entire show, especially in country music, and they cashed in handsomely.  Before the Internet liberated the individual songs from the albums that housed them, labels raked in the profits from CD sales (at $15 each) when we clearly only wanted one or two songs (at $0.99 if even that).  Add to it faster moving radio charts back then which meant more “hits” that paid more songwriters and publishers.

Anyone remember hearing a song by Reba called “One Honest Heart” on the radio?  It was from the If You See Him album.  Back in the 80’s and 90’s the charts moved so fast that you could release four singles in a year.  Elementary math: that’s only three months of exposure per song.  Again, it didn’t matter which song you liked, or for how long you heard it on the radio, if you bought the entire CD for even one of them.  In a one-way conversation, everyone appears happy.

As recently as 2010, pop fans could choose from only Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga for big summer pop spectaculars, while smaller acts grouped into touring caravans to protect against box-office disappointment.

It’s taken nearly 15 years — from the moment music file sharing exploded, around 2000, to now — for artists and their managers to embrace the technology that the industry for so long claimed only existed to encourage its demise.

I love CDs.  And records; remember those ones with the big fold-out flaps?  I love the packaging, and the sequencing of the songs on an album (especially true albums like Red Headed Stranger, and even Garth’s Chris Gaines CD).  But those days seem to be slipping away.  Perhaps someday we’ll look back on full albums in disbelief.  It’s a 401(k) world, as Thomas Friedman wrote, where the business models of the past, the ones that survived and even thrived with little to no measurement systems, have become obsolete before the movers and shakers even see it happening.

For the rest of us, though, these can be interesting, exciting times.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on August 16, 2013)