Who Killed the Platinum Album?
Hugh McIntyre recently published a piece for Forbes about the lack of platinum albums from bands so far in 2014.
For the uninitiated, a platinum record is the Recording Industry Association of America's award for sales of one million albums. The RIAA also awards sales of a half million (gold) and ten million (diamond) albums.
Sales is the key word in those descriptions. Somewhere along the line "platinum record" and "good record" became synonymous, but really what we're talking about here isn't much different than that "Top Snow Tire Salesman 1972" plaque hanging in your grandpa's hallway.
McIntyre assigns no blame for this year's weak sales, but he's stirred a long stewing pot. For 20 years now, critics have been trumpeting the death of the music industry, citing ever-declining sales figures. Twenty years also puts us back to the launch of Netscape Navigator, the first web browser with truly broad appeal. From there it was a few short years to Napster and the generally agreed upon cause of music industry death: file sharing. Illegal downloading. Piracy.
We're two decades into the same impassioned argument, repeated over and over with only slight variations. Here's an example from country singer Rosanne Cash's Facebook page, published Oct. 18, 2014:
For those of you who keep telling me that artists should work for free for the sheer joy of creation .... Do you pay your plumber? Your kid's teacher? Your mechanic? Your grocer?
If art and music are not important to you, by all means, don't buy them. If they are, then PAY for them, as you do everything else in your life....
I do not participate in the notion that music should be free, until tech companies who use our work as a loss leader also work for free, and until the CEOs of those companies stop taking home millions of dollars in ad revenues which they make by using the work of songwriters and musicians as bait.
Right on, sister. I don't disagree with a single word of that rant, but Ms. Cash has confused two things here: In the opening paragraphs she blames consumers (specifically, listeners who don't pay) for declining revenues, but in the closing paragraph she points her finger at tech companies and CEOs.
I lean more toward Cash's latter argument if we're talking solely about fairly compensating artists for online plays. People have been listening to their favorite cuts free since the first music radio station started broadcasting almost 100 years ago. We may have been listening for free, but artists and record labels weren't giving it away. Radio stations paid for the rights to broadcast those songs -- and they still do. Why the same compensation schedules aren't enforced for digital platforms is beyond me.
What's broken down in terms of artist compensation isn't the fan-to-music relationship as Cash argues, but the business-to-music relationship. We still value music (if you didn't, you wouldn't be reading this), but for reasons that are beyond my pay grade, the corporate world has devalued music to zero.
Look no further than the NFL for an example. Each year the nation's strangest non-profit organization puts on the biggest advertising bonanza of the year; over 100 million viewers tuned in for the 2014 Super Bowl. Some watched the game, others watched the commercials, and a percentage tuned in for the halftime show featuring Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The NFL knows this. Any organization smart enough to earn the same tax benefits as the Red Cross is capable of categorizing its demographics. But the NFL no longer wants to compensate the musicians who bring in the non-football audience for the Super Bowl halftime show. The National Football League recently told Coldplay that if they wanted to play the Super Bowl they'd need to pay for the privilege. Back to Ms. Cash's point, that's like asking plumbers to pay for the privilege of maintaining the stadium.
It isn't just other industries that have so devalued music. The music industry -- by which I mean the major labels -- has probably contributed more to the decline of record sales than any outside force by homogenizing their rosters in an effort to maximize sales. The prevailing logic seems to be that if one Katy Perry sells, then twenty Katy Perrys will sell even better.
For every Beatles, there's a Monkees.
That's not a new strategy by any means. For every Beatles, there's a Monkees, but it's short-sighted, and as such can only be one of several strategies deployed by a record label. The long-term strategy is artist development, and the majors appear to have given up on that.
Why is artist development so important? Well, take Tom Waits, for example. Waits needed 10 years and eight albums to find his voice, to become the Tom Waits. In today's market, he would've been dropped after that first low-selling album, two albums tops. From a short-term business view, that would've made sense. When music is reduced to snow tires, discontinuing the low-volume products is the logical thing to do.
But somebody -- or more like a string of somebodies -- recognized Tom Waits for the genius that he is. I assume that his label didn't consider him a failure for not putting up John Denver-like numbers in those early years. They stuck by him, and eventually he found his audience.
This is the fundamental element missing from the traditional music industry: too much industry, not enough music. They grind out bland records by talent show winners and manufactured pop idols and then blame music fans for not buying them. But the thing is, we do buy music. 'Slate' reported back in January that 2013 enjoyed the highest volume of vinyl sales in 22 years, and I guarantee you those sales weren't comprised of Rebecca Black 7-inch singles.
This might be the most cogent point in my entire ramble: music fans buy albums, music listeners download songs. This isn't a criticism, just an observation. We go to the drive-thru to shovel down some quick calories, but we hit the nice restaurants for a dining experience. Both have their place, but no reasonable person expects Chez Pierre to put up McDonald's-like numbers.
Blaming your customers for not buying your product is asinine, and blaming the internet even more so. Without a Delorean (or at least a Prius with a Mr. Fusion) I can't prove this, but my hunch is that if the internet as we know it existed as far back as 1970, 'Eagles Greatest Hits 1971-75' wouldn't have gone 29 times platinum, nor would a good chunk of the RIAA's top 100 selling albums. You aren't likely to find 'The Bodyguard' soundtrack or Hootie and the Blowfish in a lot of serious record collections.
And not only would 'The Bodyguard' album not have sold 17 million copies in the digital age, it wouldn't have racked up 17 million downloads (which also would've given that record multiplatinum status). No, everybody's mom would've just downloaded Whitney's 'I Will Always Love You' single, which is the primary reason anyone bought that soundtrack in the first place.
That sounds snarky and elitist, but it's not. My point is simply that the digital age has made available a drive-thru lane for music listeners, and the music industry has rushed to get as many by-the-numbers meals out the window as they can -- they invest all of their blood and treasure into the Iggy Azaleas of the world. That's fine if they want to move some singles, but it's not a platinum album strategy.
It's not our fault that the platinum album is dead. If we weren't doing our part to support good music, Jack White couldn't afford his Willy Wonka music factory on 7th Avenue in downtown Nashville. Music fans will always pony up the cash to support their favorite artists. We go to the shows, buy the records, throw in for the Kickstarter campaigns, and get the t-shirt.
We're in this thing; we're invested.
Paying a little more attention to the customers who want to spend their money and a little less time auto-tuning this week's talent show winner in hopes he goes platinum would be a great first step for those major labels that are floundering about, wondering what to do about their declining sales. And until you do, stop blaming us for killing the platinum album. We're your customers, not your enemies. Act like it.