The musical earth shook just a little last week when Soundscan, the music industry's sales tracker, made an announcement that we've seen coming for awhile: Old music (called "catalog" music by the industry) is outselling new music for the first time EVER. This information was a smack in the face of two generations of music marketing, subtly defying the long held belief that music is made for and bought by people under the age of 25. I say that we saw this coming because, from where we sit, we've observed a growing trend.
The musical earth shook just a little last week when Soundscan, the music industry's sales tracker, made an announcement that we've seen coming for awhile: Old music (called "catalog" music by the industry) is outselling new music for the first time EVER. This information was a smack in the face of two generations of music marketing, subtly defying the long held belief that music is made for and bought by people under the age of 25. I say that we saw this coming because, from where we sit, we've observed a growing trend. Year after year our audience grows (to over a million people last year), and has a few common characteristics: they are over age 30, they love music, and they feel both underappreciated and underrepresented by the major musical establishment, from the labels to broadcast radio to the Grammy Awards.
Fad after musical fad, this establishment has spent its resources and muscle consistently pushing artists and music that appeal to teens. Lately, the generational musical segregation has reached a high point, with the popular musical focus being on electronic (and inexpensive to produce) dance tracks that de-emphasize the organic musicianship that was often the focal point of the prior generation's greatest music. And this strategy has finally bit back with a double vengeance, alienating a large portion of older audiences at the same time that those adults are flexing their economic muscle as never before. As they've done in just about every other area of commerce, from autos to lattes, Baby Boomers and the emerging Gen X'ers are prepared to change the landscape of popular music. They are not their parents; they cherish music and want to actively enjoy it long after their school days are done. They already dominate the concert-going audiences (you could combine the concert tallies of Rihanna, Chris Brown and TI and they wouldn't even approach the draw of a Bon Jovi, Jill Scott or Jimmy Buffett), but they have summarily rejected what they hear on the popular broadcast radio, instead buying Pandora or Spotify subscriptions (where they can make their own playlist) or spending their money on "catalog" albums of Luther, Sade and Anita.
Like Big Government and Big Business, Big Music has been slow to react, fiddling with its out-of-date paradigm even as Rome burns. So we get more FloRida and Ke$ha sound-alikes, but very little aimed at the tens of millions of adult fans with passion for music and the money to spend on it. Women over 30 have been the largest buyers of music for more than a decade, but you wouldn't know it by hearing most industry execs talk. It has taken "skunk works" projects within the major labels to begin to address this market, such as the in-house pioneers at Stax and Blue Note and the clever Gospel and jazz sides of the majors who are trying to fill the gaps with miniscule budgets. In addition, the blind eye of the majors has opened the door for smaller independent labels like Shanachie, Entertainment One, Hidden Beach, Malaco, Mack Avenue and Purpose Music to sign top tier talent and aggressively (and smartly) bring their music to masses - even without much radio support. The lack of broadcast radio play and the changing landscape of musical distribution have reduced the definition of "success" from Gold sales certification to much more modest numbers. But they have created a more nimble undercurrent to the industry where artists can make a living and emerging labels can make money even with smaller sales, and creative marketing to adults can trump a history of writing big checks to get exposure.
It may take a housecleaning and a few more bankruptcies for the big labels to finally get it. They will ultimately learn that adults in America and Europe are unlike any previous generation, and those labels will change their approach to address that market -- or die. As last week's Soundscan report reminds us, adult musical audiences (in my best Glenn Close voice) will not be ignored.
So what does all this mean to SoulTrackers, the majority of whom are in the 30-55 age group now being sought after by marketers outside of the music industry? It means your time is coming...if you want it to be. You are now being heard more than you think, and you have the power to change an industry that hates change; it just may take a bit more work than the old days, when simply flipping on the radio in your car was all you needed to do to discover new music. What can you do?
- Find your favorite new sources of music, from internet and satellite radio to websites like SoulTracks, and we will do our part to continue to put in front of you strong younger artists like Eric Roberson, Leela James and Sy Smith as well as vibrant legacy acts such as Mint Condition and Phil Perry.
- Once you find a great artist, let your Facebook, Twitter and daily life friends know about them. Be their avenue to reach adult audiences. With the limited marketing budgets available to artists, I can't overemphasize how important this is.
- If you can, set aside in your budget a little money for CDs and concerts to feed your love and to support those major label and indie artists who are creating the music you love.
New diversions, from computer games to hundreds of cable television channels, will to attempt to pull us away from music, but there is nothing, NOTHING, in those worlds that can replace the emotional impact of the right song that hits us where we are or where we want to be. It seems odd to call this a revolution, but that's what is underway: a quiet revolution of adult music lovers that is still at its infancy, but which announced its presence in the latest Soundscan report. It is a revolution that the musical industry can ignore at its own peril. Like water, this movement will find its level, whether or not the traditional institutions adjust to it. It is that way with all revolutions.
By Chris Rizik