Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Stones turn 50, catalog music sales are booming

Thoughts on a couple of recent articles:

1.  Maura Johnston summarized some of the reasons why sales of catalog music are outpacing those of new music in the Village Voice. If there's one indestructible fact of the digital music age, it's that people will still pay money for music by beloved, established artists.  The extraordinary success of The Beatles "1", which was the best selling album of 2001 (and the 21st century) proved that beyond any doubt.  It didn't matter that Napster was blowing up or that people were re-buying music they already owned on other formats (or on other CD's) or that it would have been simple to burn the same songs onto a mix CD for practically no cost rather than pay $15.99.  

It's never been easier to hear parts of, or even whole catalog albums using any number of internet-based sources.  Previous generations of fans had to have friends whose parents had cool record collections or happen to be listening to the radio when a certain classic song was played.  Now you don't have to spend any time wondering whether such-and-such a famous/notorious 60's band was really any good, you can stream or d/l their music and decide for yourself within seconds.  But catalog sales are driven by nostalgia, and people get nostalgic for things that seem cool and different compared to whatever is available in the present.  Nostalgia revives the star quality of people and music that had been ignored for years because people became bored or burned out by it (or because something newer came along and stole its thunder).  It's amazing that Lionel Richie can go from being an afterthought who hadn't been relevant in the mainstream for twenty years, to being a huge sensation within a few months.  But will people be nostalgic for today's artists in the same way in another twenty years?  My guess is no.  My gut feeling is that you're less likely to be nostalgic for something in the future (= to pay money for it) if you're not paying money for it in the present.  That was less of a problem in the Beatles' time. The multi-media effect (reason #3 in the article) also plays a role in this.  Being a music star used to be enough, now you have to be a music + TV + Youtube + ... star to be truly famous and stand a chance of being remembered.

2. Once in a blue moon, CNN publishes a great commentary or social interest piece, this week featured an excerpt from Hanspeter Kuenzler's mega-ebook/press anthology (2000 pages!) about the Rolling Stones.  Diehard fans already know the story of the band's beginnings, but as a general introduction to how the band got started (complete with the all-important cultural and political context of post-war England), it made for a good read (and made me want to buy the book).

The Beatles, Stones, and Zeppelin were the unquestioned giants of rock up to and including my generation of high schoolers, we all took it as a given that no matter how much we loved Duran Duran or Depeche Mode or whoever, that no band stood a chance of escaping the shadow of those three 60's/70's giants.  They'd rule over rock seemingly forever, and if you wanted to have any music literacy at all (never mind having cred, if you just wanted to have a common denominator discussion about music with a group of people) then you needed to be well versed in the music of those three bands.  Of course this meant all three were overrated by virtue of being inescapable.  It was the stuff you had to like because you were told you needed to like it or else.  Some people kept eating that narrative, some of us got bored a bit earlier and started listening to the Cure or Nine Inch Nails instead.

But the Stones always seemed to be the most overrated and least legendary of the three, possibly because they never went away.  How can we miss them if they never leave, etc.  Many of us remember how the "Steel Wheels" tour was hyped as a major comeback for them, and was arguably the blueprint for the zillion-dollar megatours that every big artists is obligated to undertake these days.  Now a generation has passed, the Beatles, Floyd, Zeppelin, Who, and plenty of others have been lionized and anthologized many times over, and is it possible that the Stones have been relatively overlooked over the past twenty years and might even be a bit underrated?

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