Friday, August 14, 2009

pop is dead?

From the millions of words expelled into the stratosphere following Michael Jackson's death, one phrase rings truest: we may never see his like again. Take that in any way you chose, my point is that the king of pop may never be deposed - pop careers no longer have that longevity, new artists do not have the potential to sell the same quantity of music, artists are not allowed to develop that way. The king is dead, etc.

It's a problem that the music industry needs to address but seems unable to do so; we just do not appear to be creating mega-stars with cross-over potential and lasting appeal. There were many factors that contributed to Jackson's success but a combination of talent and timing was the primary one.

To this you can possibly add persistence. You may not have realised it but his major breakthrough album, Off The Wall in 1979, was his fifth solo release. It also followed a four year gap since his last album. The four initial solo albums were characterised by their lack of major singles - approx one per album - and 73's 'Music & Me' could justifiably have been called a flop.

Compare Robbie Williams' fortunes on his first solo release - he was in the similar situation of having been in a popular band, but the unfamiliar one of almost being dropped when his album looked like flopping. He was saved by the single, Angels, picking up heavy airplay but it was touch-and-go. Had he been dropped at that time he'd probably never have recorded another album and would've currently been back touring with Take That. It's open to opinion as to whether this would've been the best thing for everyone.

Current artists do not enjoy that level of backing from their labels, whatever the size of your deal it would normally be expected that one flop = dropped. Having taken a battering over many years labels cannot afford to fund risky prospects anymore, nor have they been keen to do so for some time.

This is not to attack record companies per se; accountants and bean counters have taken over most industries and we're all looking for the fastest-fix to financial constraints. There's no such thing as easy-money but can you really blame the labels for trying to guarantee success with short-term measures? It's all about protecting the investment.

The other problem is the market itself and the route to reach it. When Michael Jackson finally bloomed into pop mega-stardom in the 80's he was aided by the fact that there were fewer media outlets and they were powerful. The audience was concentrated on a smaller number of radio stations, magazines, newspapers and TV stations, meaning that a key record release could reach a maximum audience with substantially less effort than required now.

He also had the timely and simultaneous rise of MTV to exploit and the only way to really own the songs was to buy the albums. Will the planets ever align in the same way again? Who could potentially attain the same level of stardom, will any other pop star be known in every small town in every country of the world?

I know of no such artist, all the genres are so carefully segmented now that there are few edges to be blurred. Usher might be a very famous RnB act, Eminem might be a very famous Hip Hop act, Beyonce might be a hugely successful soul/RnB act, and they may all have crossover hits but none are ever likely to be a global phenomenon.

Another remnant of a bygone age? Talent and timing were everything, and the rest is 'history'.

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