Longtime music industry pundit (some would say “gadfly”) Bob Lefsetz, recently wrote the following in Variety:
The album is dying in front of our very eyes.
In other words, what kind of screwed up world do we live in where Katy Perry ’s new album “Prism” sells only 287,000 copies in its debut? One in which everybody’s interested in the single, and no one’s got time to sit and hear your hour-plus statement.
He goes onto underscore his point thus:
We’ve turned into a nation of grazers. And the artist’s job is to constantly be at the smorgasbord. Not to deliver one big meal that is picked at and thrown away, but to constantly provide tantalizing bites to the public.
Media cannot be limited to the album release date. It must be a 24/7, 365-day-a-year effort. Same with creativity. If your track gets traction, more power to you. If it doesn’t, go back in the studio and make more. In other words, if you’re sitting at home bitching that you’re not making any money because the Internet stole your business, you’re RIGHT! There are so many diversions that no one’s got time for mediocre anymore.
I agree with Bob that we’re moved into attention-deficit mode. But just a few weeks ago, rapper Drake sold 658K out of the gate. And, after 7 weeks, it’s still in the Billboard Top 10. What does this mean?
Maybe we’re seeing not the death of the album, but the death of a certain kind of pop star. The death of 4-quadrant pop. The death of pop that’s a holdover from the largely white, top–40, contemporary hits radio of the 90s and early aughts.
The influence of millennials is only growing. More important, 40% of millennials are expected to be multicultural. And to multicultural millennials, hip hop is their soundtrack, not necessarily Katy Perry-style pop.
Lefsetz cites Perry as well as Paul McCartney and Elton John, two longtime music icons whose recent releases haven’t fared well. It’s more acute for McCartney and John: I think they’re caught in the teeth of a generational shift in which their core fans are, quite literally, dying off.
Are our attention spans shorter? Yes. Is there a growing preference for “bite-sized” media? That’s also true . But I believe that people still like that there’s more to explore from an artist beyond a particular single. For his part, Drake guests on a lot of artists tracks, his way of staying “at the smorgasbord,” all of which maintains his visibility and sets up the audience for a full-length album. By contrast, the Katy Perrys of the world still adhere to the big-album-followed-by-singles strategy. It’s all about you, whereas guesting allows you to draft off the efforts of others.
Wonder Twin powers, activate.
Side note: I just started reading Harvard professor Anita Elberse’s new book Blockbusters. It looks at why the future of pop culture will revolve around those big bets on entertainment properties. Katy Perry may be an interesting case study of when such a strategy doesn’t work.
More to come, I’m sure.