Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Why Top 40 Music (and Major-Label Music General) Isn’t What It Used to Be

This is an informal opinion type paper I did for one of my music courses, comments are appreciated.

It used to be that having a number one single was something that all recording artists striver for. It was a symbol that you made an incredible record. All of the best artists had number ones. Breaking into the top 40 meant you had made it that you had recorded a top notch song. While today, it is a symbol of success, breaking into the top 40 does not hold the prestige it used to. It by no means signifies the fact that you recorded a great record. To me, breaking the top 40 in today’s market means that your record label paid off enough radio executives to get your (most likely awful) single into heavy rotation on some trashy Clear Channel radio station.

The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” was the top single of the 1960’s spending 9 consecutive weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The number two spot was taken by the Rolling Stone’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The top 10 was rounded out by cuts from bands such as The Beach Boys, The Doors, Simon and Garfunkle, and couple more Beatles tunes.

Fast forward four decades to the present day, this week’s (week of 4/10/06) Hot 100 chart is topped by flavor-of-the-week “singer-songwriter” Daniel Powter and his single “Bad Day.” He is followed by rap-reggae artist Sean Paul and his single “Temperature” a reggae infused rap anthem that features the chorus “When woman the weather turn cold I wanna be keepin' you warm, I got the right temperature for shelter you from the storm, Oh lawd, gyal (sic) I got the right tactics to turn you on, and girl I...Wanna be the Papa...You can be the Mom....oh oh!” This week’s top 10 is rounded out by “hits” from artists such as James Blunt, T.I., Dem Franchize Boys, Bubba Sparxxx, and Ne-Yo. So my question is, what happened to top 40 music? Anybody could tell you that Daniel Powter doesn’t have 1/100th of the talent and song writing ability as say the Beatles and it would be hard to argue that Dem Franchize Boys could put out a single that was anywhere near as good as the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.

To me, the pattern is clear, and the fact that artists are staying around for a lot shorter now-a-days simply cannot be argued. Over the course of their career the Rolling Stones had 9 number ones singles in the US, the Beach Boys had 4 number ones but dozens more in the top 40 and the Beatles had a whopping 20 number one singles in the US. This week’s top 10 artists have a combined 7 number one singles, most of which are very recent and only two of them have multiples (Kelly Clarkson, and Mary J. Blige the only two artists that I would consider mildly talented on this week’s list).That being said, why is it that these (mostly) no-name, talentless, one-hit wonder artists are topping today’s charts? In my opinion, it is the fault of the record companies.

It is become clear to me that record labels, especially major record labels, have become less and less interested with building an artist’s career and more and more interested in squeezing one, maybe two big singles out of an artist just to make a quick and easy buck and then just moving on to the next guy in line. “Why would record companies want to do that?” some people may ask, “wouldn’t it be more profitable to build an artists career and get longevity out of them?” The clear answer is no.

First off, most up and coming artists are dying for a record deal and are not very well versed in the business side of the music industry. That means when they will do just about anything to get an opportunity to sign a major label deal and probably aren’t to concerned enough or educated about what the contract actually says. Chances are, the label is going to get a lot more money than they deserve without the artists even realizing until they have gone platinum and are yet to have received a royalty check. On the other hand, a seasoned artist with a few records already released would probably know what to ask for and probably would hire a good lawyer for negotiating record contracts, making more money for themselves and thus less for the label.

Second of all, major labels don’t devote a lot of time to these (what they refer to as) “breakout” artists, after the initial push of the first singles, record companies can let these artists drop off the radar, maybe giving them a chance at a second record if their first album did exceptionally well. Furthermore, while the labels in general have a lot of say as to what gets on the radio and what artists generally get out there, it is up for the people to decide what stays and what goes. While a single from an artist may do well once because of strong label push, it is going to be hard for an untalented group such as say Dem Franchise Boys (I actually did listen to their single “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It” and they are indeed, extremely untalented) to have repeat success.

Third of all, we all know that people can download almost anything they want off the internet free of charge and the record labels have done nothing (save for the over-priced iTunes) to embrace this and instead have chosen to fight its customers by taking them to court. You may say that 99 cents a song makes sense and is about what you would pay for a CD in a store. While this is true, selling a CD in a store requires people to ship and distribute the record, it requires people to work at the store, it requires people and materials to physically manufacture the CD, amongst a number of other factors that are all cut out by services such as iTunes but for some reason, the consumers aren’t seeing a dime out of this. It is clear that I have digressed so back to the point. The fact that illegal downloading has become so prevalent also affects the charts. Obviously, if a song is illegally downloaded, it is not going to show up on the charts, which (again, obviously) is part of the reason why record sales in general have been so poor as of late.

In the past, most notably, during the 1960’s and 70’s bands had real staying power. Not only did record labels put more effort into elongating careers of artists but labels searched for bands on the basis of not only commercial appeal, but also talent, and songwriting ability. Some bands would explode and hit the scene immediately (see the Beatles) and in other cases, bands would start on independent labels and then continue their careers on major labels without compromising any artistic integrity (see the Velvet Underground). Other artists, while not having very many number one singles or hit singles at all, still sold platinum on a consistent basis thanks to persistence and effort from a record company (see Bob Dylan, Neil Young). Dylan has been with Columbia (Sony/BMG) for 44 years and Young with Reprise (Warner) for 37 (minus a quick 4-year stint with Geffen during 80’s). I could give you all the statistics in the world but the point is that the record industry just isn’t the same as it used to be and the consumers are suffering because of it. Artists and their art are being given zero consideration because all of the major label’s efforts are going towards making a dollar. The music has been pushed aside, what is important now is image if you can look like a thug (50 Cent) or dance around in near nothing (Britney Spears) than you are set for a little while no matter how awful your music is. While a lot of people buy into these image-based artists, a lot of music fans don’t which is why I believe there will never be another band as big as say the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Making good music just doesn’t come into the picture for most major labels.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, you said leave comments, so I will. While I may agree that today's Top 40 doesn't have very good music, your post, or paper as it was, makes sweeping generalizations. Back in the 60's and 70's, there was a lot of manufactured, dumb music completely devoid of artistry (Think Leif Garrett, if you want a teen idol). I think the problem is the major labels have become completely focused on profit and not on the artist (which you did address). Still, to say that the best music was always on the radio in the past is just not true. There was bad music on the radio, and extremely influential music never broadcasted.

I like the post though. Keep 'em coming.

6:07 PM  
Blogger Jacob said...

I totally agree with and am aware of the fact there was definitely shit on the radio back then, that a lot of very important bands were never on the radio and that yes, for the sake of my paper I did make some generalizations. I think my point (it may not be clear enough and thats my fault) is that now there is almost no good music on the radio/in top 40. Anyways thanks for your comment they are always appreciated.

2:12 AM  
Anonymous Tamlin said...

I think you have a pretty clear picture of what's going on. I personally lament the death of top 40/local radio when in my car in the summer. We are however working on making things better.
Remember though a key ingrediant in victory will be when we can secure large scale defections from the ranks of the enemy. (Eg the big four)They want to do it, but they are afraid. With good reason. These are people's livihoods after all and to ask them to sacrifice that for vague notions is wrong.
It's the best qualified people w/ the most to lose. The Beatles put a lot of folks out of work after all and the music industry can't be blamed for not wanting to see that happen again.

I sound like a corporate shill, which is amusing since so many corporate shills spend their lives trying to sound like they are musicians. The music will out. We will win.

9:35 PM  
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