I’ve been sitting on this post for a few days now, but on 3 January, The New York Times reported the top-selling record of 2013. Unsurprisingly, the return of Justin Timberlake–who himself is approaching a transcendent pop cultural echelon reserved for Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Michael Jordan–with the first volume of The 20/20 Experience topped sales with 2.43 million copies sold.
Nielsen, the firm which provided the results, also noted that Timberlake’s victory is somewhat Pyrrhic: that 2.43 million is the lowest highest total annual sales figure since SoundScan started keeping track of sales figures 22 years ago. For the sake of comparison, 2012’s winner, Adele’s 21, sold 4.41 million copies in 2012…and also topped the list in ’11 with 5.82m.
There are any number of reasons for the drop-off, three immediately come to mind:
1) The records that came out last year just weren’t that good. Top ten lists everywhere seldom include what sold the most, and of course, music is so subjective as to have little if any bellwether whatsoever. Timberlake almost certainly has more broad-based appeal than Lil Wayne or Taylor Swift, yet sold less copies of his most accessible and ambitious LP yet released. Which leads me to,
2) The economy in 2013 was weaker than most people either realize or are honest enough to admit, with what little disposable income people may or may not have going elsewhere than into retailers, much less into music sales. It’s plausible, in 2008, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III [inexplicably] sold 2.87 million copies; in ’09, Taylor Swift’s Fearless led with 3.2m, while Eminem’s Recovery at 3.4m won 2010. And, if teenyboppers, long the plum target market for retailers, are having trouble finding work–youth unemployment as of late summer ’13 was 19.7 million according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics–and spending more money putting gas in their cars or awful Star*ucks beverages or more expensive luxuries such as cell phones and mobile services, they’re not going to be buying CDs. Piracy is a red herring; statistics have shown in the past that leaked or otherwise illicit reproduction or dissemination of records actually may, counter-intuitively, lead to improved record sales.
We may also rightly ask what effect, if any, services like Spotify, VEVO or even YouTube might be having on sales-based services like iTunes or retailers both digital and B&M. Regardless, if consumers drive the economy, then what should we expect to happen when fuel tanks are perpetually at a quarter capacity?
And, 3) Pop music is no longer pop, as in, pop-ular music.
This might be the most troubling possibility because of the total landscape change that this represents and the ramifications it has on the flagship record labels and media and industrial conglomerates that subsidize them. The reason college and alternative radio formats existed for 30+ years because there was a dominant format from which there was to deviate. As Pop moved from being a general idea with a mainstream audience to a specific genre amongst others, and radio fragmented into genre-specific stations and ceded the Top 40 high ground by defaulting to a three-decade (the first oldies stations that launched in the mid-80s did 50s-60s-70s) or three-decade-and-today format (starting roughly in the late 90s with 80s-90s-today, because ‘today’ then apparently wasn’t the 90s) that specializes in absolutely nothing, it lost much of that aforementioned broad-based appeal. If you’re not 14-20 years old, and not stuck in a car or a shopping mall, there’s a good chance you’re not listening to Top 40 radio.
With the disintegration of Pop, cultural postmodernism dictates that it becomes one of many equal options: this is why Top 40 radio includes its own product as well as tracks from myriad genres from country to rock to EDM. This is to say that everything is nothing, and by embracing things that are not by or of itself, it dictates its own ultimate irrelevance. Whether or not this is actually a good thing, I leave to the reader to decide, but I would maintain that the bottom line is impacted when Pop is not made for a general audience.
Pop radio’s irrelevance, though, has ramifications for the rest: if alternative formats exist, they do so because there is the tacit acknowledgement of the relevance and importance of something else: counter-culture exists because there is a culture to counter in the first place. With the descent of pop music into the morass of alternatives, we have decided there is no culture. Alternatives to nothing are nothing at all.
And without that structure, without the behemoth, no one can claim the moral or artistic high ground. Katy Perry is no better or worse than The Flaming Lips; Pixies no more or less than DC Talk.
Pop music is now no more than a fetish property. Nerds in sequins, dorks in two-tone hairdos and fishnets.
I believe this, in a way, helps us to decipher what is happening with record sales overall: the pop record is becoming obsolete, unless there are enough singles to justify buying an entire record. This is why Adele’s 21 exploded over two years: one couldn’t escape ‘Rolling in the Deep’, ‘Rumour Has It’, ‘Set Fire to the Rain’, ‘Somebody Like You’, for the past two years. It’s more expedient to buy the record than buy individual singles. No one cares about the record, they just want the singles. Timberlake’s record might be really good, but all we hear on a broad scale is ‘Suit and Tie’: 99 cents for that single is more affordable and practical than $12 for a CD or more for vinyl (which, SoundScan notes, is making a notable comeback…and the prices have, as well.)
$12 these days needs to feed my babies, fill my gas tank, do anything other than line somebody else’s pockets. Believe me, I wish it were some other way. I’d love to support artists and their craft, especially smaller artists who toil and tour for a lesser payout, but I like many others have to survive. Makes you wonder how pop stars do, no?
If sales are down, how do they keep up?