Chris Molanphy's latest edition of the Hit Parade podcast on Slate is a must for anyone who grew up listening to and buying music in the 90's. Predictably, I ended up getting lost down the rabbit hole of 90's rock playlist on Youtube in the days after I listened to it. I've heard more Collective Soul in the past week than I had in the previous ten years.
I've always appreciated the mix of sentiment and hard data that Molanphy brings to his columns. He always strives to analyze the social reasons behind what makes a hit into a hit, while supporting his ideas with data from the charts. In any era, the chart narrative can be far different from the memories of the "people who were there". That was never more true in the mid to late 1990's, and that's precisely what this podcast is about.
I didn't know that MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" was the genesis of the trend, the "experiment" (as Molanphy termed it several times) that turned into a smashing, absurdly profitable success for Hammer and (later in the decade) dozens of other artists. This podcast is as good an analysis as you'll find on the subject, but I want to turn over a few more stones:
1) By the end of the 90's, the album had largely supplanted the single. I felt this wasn't emphasized enough. The marketing of a hit hadn't changed in decades -- push a song to radio (and later MTV) by any means necessary, drive up demand, and make the product available in stores. The strategy was identical, but the product was different. Instead of running to the store to buy the single, you bought the album. It didn't matter if you were a one hit wonder or a career artist. The default format -- in fact, the only format in most cases -- you could buy in the store was the CD album.
This is why so many shitty bands with minor hits earned multiplatinum sales that only the top end superstar acts can rack up these days. The first act that always comes to mind for me in this respect is Smashmouth.
2) The airplay charts were a better indicator of the "real" number one song in the country. But they still don't give us anything close to the real story. In looking at the list of songs that spent the most time at number one on the Hot 100 Airplay chart, there are a few anomalies. You have the chart topping mega-smash hits from the first half of the decade ("I Will Always Love You", "One Sweet Day", "The Sign"), and the 21st century "iTunes" era smashes ("We Belong Together", "Uptown Funk", "Shape of You"). The first group were undoubtedly huge sellers (singles and albums), and the Airplay chart clearly corroborates what the sales charts already tell you. The second group come from the current era when airplay, Youtube views, and streaming is king, again, no surprises here. The anomalies happened in the intervening years.
"Don't Speak" was #1 in Airplay for 16 weeks. Yes, the song and video were everywhere. This translated into huge album sales, about sixteen million worldwide. That all makes sense. But the longest running Airplay hit of all time, a record that has incredibly stood for nearly twenty years, is "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls. Yes, that song was inescapable in 1998. But their record breaking success in airplay translated to only four million in album sales. And it's not like Goo Goo Dolls vanished from the radio after their one huge hit like Los Del Rio did. They were radio staples for years. Similarly, take Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn", which ruled Airplay for 11 weeks. Her sales were good (seven million worldwide) but not spectacular for the 1990's. The hit single was a number one Airplay smash, but the album didn't reach number one anywhere other than her native Australia.
So for some artists, Airplay was a predictor of strong album sales, as you'd expect. But for others the connection is far from clear. The confusion applies in the other direction too, for instance, Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill" is one of the top selling albums ever, but only "You Learn" (hardly the most popular or well remembered song from the album) topped the Airplay chart.
Those years from about 1995-1998 are easily the haziest, most impossible to interpret years for hit songs in chart history.
3) When the "experiment" of not releasing singles in the early 90's started, CD sales were still rather modest. There was a two year period between vinyl sales collapsing (or rather, being killed off intentionally by the industry) and CD sales exploding where cassettes were the top selling format. Personal note: I loved cassettes. I was a very late convert to CD's. Most of my new album length purchases were on cassette up until the fall of 1994. Whatever I couldn't get on cassette I bought on vinyl, in particular because a lot of the techno I liked wasn't easily available in any other format. And the "mix tape" is still one of the most perfect creations ever. The "mix CD" (unless mixed by a professional dance DJ) was never a thing, and the mp3 playlist holds no sentimental value for anyone whatsoever.
The master plan of the record companies only went into overdrive once the CD has almost completely ground every other format into dust. Vinyl is more expensive to produce, slower to manufacture, and more difficult to transport. Cassettes sold for about the same amount as CD, but had higher profit margins. However everyone knew it was a buggy format. The sound was inferior to vinyl, and the tapes could tear or wear out. CD's were looked upon as magic silver disks with perfect sound forever, which justified the much higher sales price. It was all bullshit. It was the cheapest medium to produce (this wasn't well understood in the days before CD read/write drives in every computer) and could be sold at an artificially high price point (despite having inferior sound compared to vinyl) with stratospheric profit margins. The plan was test driven in the days of the cassette. Only once the CD was the only medium left standing, could the industry proceed full steam ahead with their "one hit song = $18" plan. This is why so many years elapsed between the primordial days of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, and the full flowering of profitmaking evil days where even nothing artists like Chumbawamba and Marcy Playground could sell millions of albums.