with Keavin Wiggins
This month’s topic is something that affects all of us as music fans. It’s the music industry’s appetite for destruction and how they never seem to learn from their mistakes. As the title suggest, Guns N Roses play a part in the analysis, so let’s get to it.
A couple weeks back I was cruising home from Hollywood late one night with my partner in crime Michael. We had just been up to see one of our favorite artists perform to a packed house. This was an artist that never really got his due as far as popularity goes but received critical praise and is loved by those who know his music. Sadly, music industry politics and stupidity doomed his career to never reaching its full potential. I thought a little bit about that during his set and the rage slowly built up in me.
Then as we were driving back, Guns N’ Roses “Appetite for Destruction” came on the car stereo (I have a deck that plays MP3 CDRs, so I just load up discs with albums of CDs I OWN). Michael and I were getting into the music and then started discussing GNR and the time frame when they came out. Michael used to play in bands up in Hollywood around the time Axl landed there and starting trying to make his mark. Then the discussion turned to how much the industry had changed since GNR made it huge, and how a band like Guns N’ Roses wouldn’t have a chance to become superstars with the current way the industry is run. And that took me back to the first time I heard GNR.
To tell that tale a little background is required. When I was growing up we had a record store in town that was straight out of the movie “High Fidelity”. It had stacks and stacks of used records, but the magic ingredient was the people that worked there. Unlike today’s chain stores where the minimum wage earning teenager behind the counter knows nothing about the artists they are peddling aside from what they have heard on MTV, these guys knew their stuff. This store, The Record Trading Center, even had its own Jack Black like character; A tall heavy set guy with longhair named Rich.
That store became like a home away from home for me. I started my first real job in a fastfood joint at 14 (I lied on the application about my age) and every payday I rode down to the RTC on my bike to blow money on records. I got to know the people who worked there, but Rich and I seemed to click right off the bat. We shared a love for KISS but as time went on he began to turn me on to lesser known bands, as well as up and coming bands that were ruling the Sunset Strip.
Rich claimed his night gig was as a manger of bands up in Hollywood. I was never able to confirm this but it didn’t matter. He seemed to be in the thick of things up on The Strip. I unfortunately, was far too young to take advantage of the decadence that was Hollywood in those days. Everytime I came into the store, Rich would have a new demo tape for me from a “hot up and coming band” from Hollywood and also a couple of “out of the mainstream” records for me to check out. In the Fall of 1986, Rich was turning me on to the more melodic bands of punk and the fringes. The Misfits, The Ramones, Redd Kross, it was all good but The Clash really got my juices flowing. I was receiving a world class education in rock courtesy of Rich.
One day that Fall I walked into the store and Rich had this punk tinged metal band blaring out of the speakers. The singer sounded a bit like a screaming Katharine Hepburn. It was really rough around the edges and actually in the center too! With my recent exposure to punk, this new band sounded great to me, so I asked Rich who it was. “It’s a band from Hollywood called Guns N’ Roses”. I asked if they had a CD out and he said they had one that they put out themselves but he didn’t have any copies, but they were recording a real album for Geffen. He was just playing their demo and he kindly kicked me a copy.
I played that demo tape pretty consistently over the next few months and I kept pestering Rich about when the real album was coming out. Then one day late the next spring I walked into the store and Rich had a big grin on his face and he handed me an advance cassette of “Appetite for Destruction,” which wasn’t scheduled to be released for another month.
I raced home to listen to it and from the first time I heard it, I knew it was a landmark album. Far more polished than the demo I had worn out, but it still had plenty of attitude. I expected the band to become huge because they had so many killer songs on the album and the music was much more exciting that what was being played on the radio and MTV . The release date came and went and I never heard a word about them on MTV or on the mainstream rock radio stations. Fortunately, our local metal station, KNAC, was an early adopter and played songs from the album. I turned a lot of my friends on to the group and was a bit perplexed as to why they weren’t getting more attention from the mainstream music media. This music was a hell of a lot better than that Bon Jovi crap ruling the airwaves. But Axl wasn’t exactly the sex symbol that the King of Hair was. GNR looked like a bunch of misfits and that suited me perfectly.
More mainstream metal (aka hairmetal, the pop offspring of metal) was getting plenty of attention from radio and MTV at the time. Although, it wasn’t as huge as people make it out to be when looking back in retrospect. Sure you had your Bon Jovi’s which had no metal to it, just long hair and then you had a killer hard rock band turned pop in the form of Def Leppard. The Crue had traded their metal in for lingerie, lip stick and glam. In real metal circles the band most buzzed about at the time was Metallica whose 1986 “Master of Puppets” took them out of the metal fringes and placed them into the metal mainstream (not the pop mainstream; that would come later). But radio and MTV wouldn’t play Guns N’ Roses. They had to earn their bones the old fashion way--on the road. I was to learn later that the band’s fame started building through the underground. Their album started selling from word of mouth. There would be a spike in sales in each town they played. Meanwhile, the folks at Geffen were doing their best to break the band. David Geffen himself got on the phone and pleaded with MTV to play the video for “Welcome to the Jungle”. The network finally did at 3:30 in the morning one day. But that was enough, the people that saw the video flooded the MTV request lines and “Welcome to the Jungle” became the most requested video on the cable music network. But it didn’t happen overnight. The band had luckily reached gold status (500,000 albums sold) a year after the release of “Appetite for Destruction” but the flood gates to their fame were slow to open, they finally exploded in 1988 and the album subsequently went on to sell 15 million copies in the U.S. alone.
That wouldn’t happen with today’s music business. Bands that sell Gold are getting dropped from labels. New bands are given a couple of months to hit and when they fail, are sent packing. It’s a stark contrast to the way GNR broke. You will be hard pressed to find a band out today that was given the time to break out like GNR. Just look at this past summer’s Ozzfest. The baby bands were dropping like flies as the labels pulled the plug when hundreds of thousands of CD’s failed to fly off record store shelves. Plus you rarely hear a major label band that is as different from the mainstream as GNR was to the popular music of 87-88. Today’s music industry is a game of follow the leader, instant gratification and music coming second to marketing. (see the multi-platinum pop artists of the past 5 years).
There used to be such a thing as artist development. A band was given the backing of a label and was allowed time to build an audience. Fleetwood Mac is a perfect example of this. They started out as a blues band in 1968 and with the fame of their lead guitarist Peter Green, had an instant following. But it wasn’t huge. The band put out albums year after year with a changing lineup and were counted on to sell a few hundred thousand records each time out. A band with that kind of sales would never survive in today’s market. But in 1975 they added two people to the group, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and a magic formula was tapped. Seven years after the release of the first Fleetwood Mac album, the band exploded and started selling millions of records. That’s a prime example of artist development.
It’s hard enough to find people within the industry that actually sign bands to contracts that have any musical vision. That is nothing new. Hell, the Beatles were turned down by every major label not once--but twice--before George Martin reluctantly agreed to record them on his failing EMI vanity label. The rest is history.
But today’s industry doesn’t allow bands room to grow. It’s hit or miss and you’re out of the game. The only big label that comes to mind that actually touches upon having a semblance of artist development is DreamWorks, which incidentally was co-founded by David Geffen. Look at Jimmy Eat World. DreamWorks signed the band after they had already recorded the album themselves out of their own pocket. The band had previously been signed to Capitol records but that label didn’t really put much behind the band and after a couple of records they were let go.
DreamWorks signed Jimmy Eat World and released the band’s self produced “Bleed America” album as “Jimmy Eat World”. Over the next year the label methodically promoted the album and helped the group slowly build a following on the road. It took a year but the band reached the landmark of selling over a million albums in the U.S. (platinum). But Jimmy Eat World is the exception, rather than the rule these days. And it’s unlikely we will see DreamWorks work similar magic in the future as earlier this month it was announced that Universal Music was going to buy the label and fold them into Geffen records.
We hear a lot of moaning from the record industry these days about sagging sales. They are quick to point the finger at outsiders as the reason people aren’t buying CDs. They are so busy trying to place blame on others that they fail to see their own culpability in their current predicament, which isn’t nearly as bad as they would have us believe.
Lack of artist development is a big part of the woes of the industry at the moment. Lack of vision is also another big part of it. Like the disco era where the labels flooded the market with sound alike groups, which ultimately lead to a industry crash, the industry road another high in the late 90’s and early 00’s that gave them high expectations that niche music would forever sell tens of millions of albums each year. They didn’t have to really work at breaking new bands or starting a new music revolution. They had boybands, teen pop stars and bland rap-metal groups that could be counted on to move millions of CDs each time up to bat. The only problem with that is it was a trend and trends always die. The problem the industry faces now is they don’t have a new trend to take the place of the old ones because they were so busy filling stores with copycats of the stars of the old trends, they forgot to look for anything new and exciting that would spark a new trend.
But the industry is really crying wolf as well. They use the simple minded excuse of blaming downloading on the decline in CD sales. But we really must read between the lines because what sales rates are we looking at that they declined from? The late 90's boom of pop where boybands and pop-divas CD's were flying off the shelves? Of course when you have an explosion in sales it always sucks when the bubble bursts and you land back on the ground.
The real irony is the RIAA spends so much time talking about declining sales and blaming it on MP3s that they overlook the fact that they are actually making more money now then they did before Napster came out. We had the “pop” and “rap-metal" explosion in the late 90’s that made sales temporarily climb, that's called a trend bubble just like they had with disco.
I touched a little upon this in a posting to a news article where we were debating the “MP3” issue. We will conclude this antiTorial with a bit of that posting (expanded of course).
The disco bubble of the late 70’s and pop bubble of the late 90’s:
The “Saturday Night Fever” and the “Grease” soundtracks sold multimillions for RSO Records (Sat Night sold 25 million). Stupidly, the record company unrealistically expected to enjoy a similar level of sales the next year (and other labels saw the sales of Sat Night Fever and loaded up on disco groups) but that success was a one trick pony. So they had to go back to the traditional method of artist development. We discussed this a bit earlier but here is a recap of the concept; pretty much since the dawn of rock n roll, the labels put out a large collection of music from different artists each year; some hit, some don't. Some do ok and are given the chance to try again and some of them eventually sell millions. But now it's all about instant gratification, artists are not allowed to mature. They are thrown out with a set amount of promotion and if after 2 months they don't hit, they get dropped.
And this brings us back to looking at the sales rates and the RIAA’s crying wolf. In 1997, according to the RIAA's own numbers, they counted sales of 9,915.1 million. In 1998 (see popstars) that jumped to 11,416 million. 1999 the pop trend was really kicking in fueling sale to 12,816 million. (By the way: Napster was founded in May of 1999, and mp3's were already a very hot item online by then). In 2000 sales peaked at 13,214.5 million. 2001 with a down economy and as the trend of boybands, teen pop, and rap-metal starting to slow, the RIAA had sales of 12,909.4. Which was above what they had had a few years earlier before the trend bubble. In 2002, without a ton of multi-platinum sellers, sales decreased to 12,044.1, which you'll notice is above the1998 number where the bubble began.
So now you have the numbers to see that the industry is really in better shape than they let on. But even looking at the decline in sales from the trend and the lack of a new trend to take its place perspective, we see that the industry brought it upon themselves. Because things really get interesting when you look at the amount of releases per year over that same time period. 1997 the major labels in the RIAA released 33,700 titles, the next year 33,100 titles hit the stores and in 1999 they released 38,900 titles. But in 2000 things changed drastically as the trend bubble was growing and the industry was selling tens of millions of albums from a select few pop stars, nu-metal and rap-metal bands. In 2000 they released just 27,000 titles and they released about the same in 2001. So they significantly decreased the amount of music they released because they were doing so well with certain trends but when the trends died they were left hanging. The same exact thing happened with disco. But in the past when a trend died, the industry usually had something to take it's place, but this time they didn't and still went on to sell as many albums as they did before the trend bubble.
Although some great music has actually been released over the past few years, very few people know about it because it was not widely promoted due to the fact that it's easier to promote a "clone" band that fits nicely into a little trend box. The ultimate irony of blaming MP3s comes when you see that the numbers don’t add up to the claim and in fact the RIAA certified far more multi-platinum albums than ever before AFTER the advent of Napster and the clones that followed.
As Axl sang on “Appetite for Destruction”, “where do we go now?” The answer is pretty simple, the industry needs to pull its collective head out of its collective ass and examine where they strayed from the winning formula in the past. They need to get back to artist development and actually resume seeking out new artists that bring something new to the table and can move music forward and become the next big thing. And to use another Guns N’ Roses reference, the industry needs to relearn “Patience”; when they know they have a great band on their hands, they need to get behind that band and go the distance, instead of giving up in the first quarter.
You can scream all day long about someone stealing your garden hose, but you look rather silly standing in front of your house yelling about that stolen garden house when behind you the house is burning down from a fire you yourself set. In fact, if you did that, most people would say “you’re f***ing crazy!”