(September 17, 2013) It isn’t surprising that soul music fans were a bit giddy last week when they looked at the Billboard album charts. Four of the top six albums were by artists (newcomer Ariana Grande, Tamar Braxton, John Legend and Jaheim) who appeal – at least in part - to the kinds of urban, adult audiences that have been largely ignored by radio and major media over the past several years. While the week could simply be an aberration, it follows several months of whispered buzz about a rather unexpected development: the reemergence of soul music. Major labels like Blue Note and Sony (through its Sony Red division) have re-entered the soul music arena with new signings of artists, and independent soul music stalwart labels e-One, Shanachie and Purpose Music have all noticeably increased their release schedules.
(September 17, 2013) It isn’t surprising that soul music fans were a bit giddy last week when they looked at the Billboard album charts. Four of the top six albums were by artists (newcomer Ariana Grande, Tamar Braxton, John Legend and Jaheim) who appeal – at least in part - to the kinds of urban, adult audiences that have been largely ignored by radio and major media over the past several years. While the week could simply be an aberration, it follows several months of whispered buzz about a rather unexpected development: the reemergence of soul music. Major labels like Blue Note and Sony (through its Sony Red division) have re-entered the soul music arena with new signings of artists, and independent soul music stalwart labels e-One, Shanachie and Purpose Music have all noticeably increased their release schedules. Even more surprising - and encouraging - is the emergence of new labels, such as EchoPark JDI Records, whose principal purpose is to sign soul artists and aim directly at the underserved urban adult audiences.
This trend has brought “classic” soul and R&B artists ranging from Phil Perry to ConFunkShun to Stephanie Mills to Chante Moore to Howard Johnson back into the studio this year and has also created opportunities for a new generation of performers such as Shelea, Marcell Russell, Zo! and Chrisette Michele to build solid, long careers without having to appeal to 16 year olds.
Why the increased interest in adult soul music lovers? Part of it is simple math: Everyone makes more money off of a purchased CD than a Pandora stream, a YouTube view or especially a stolen electronic file. And study after study has shown that adult audiences are MUCH more likely than younger fans to buy music, and they tend to favor physical CDs over the less profitable mp3s. Says Shanachie General Manager Randall Grass, “Over-thirty audiences tend to still buy CDs and yes that does make artists who appeal to those audiences more attractive to labels. I think there is growing awareness of this on the part of labels.”
Another factor in the renewed interest in adult soul is the redefinition of what “success” means for an album. The days of gold (500,000 sold) or platinum (1 million sold) albums are long gone for all but the biggest artists, and both major and independent labels have revamped their processes for recording, marketing and distributing music in order to find financial success at sales of a fraction of those numbers. That is a great fit for soul music, a genre that may not often be able to deliver a gold album, but is still favored by affluent, urban adults who exist in numbers big enough to purchase in substantial quantities, such as Jaheim’s 60,000 CDs last week or recent 100,000+ sales numbers by artists such as Fantasia and Charlie Wilson.
Finally, it is the music itself that is selling soul, as the genre is proving to be one of the most creatively vibrant. Purpose Music co-CEO George Littlejohn explains, “One of the reasons we are in a ‘soul renaissance’ is because of the diversity of the music being produced. Earlier this year artists like Bilal, Jose James and Alice Smith came out with projects that stretched the boundaries of what is normally considered ‘soul.’ We also seem to be at the inception of a new British soul invasion with the mainstream press attention and critical acclaim that artists like Emeli Sande, Lianne La Havas and Laura Mvula have been receiving. All this excitement is great for the genre as artists feel more comfortable stretching and extending the range of their talent.”
But a broad soul reemergence faces a few obstacles, perhaps the biggest of which is dwindling number of physical stores selling CDs. Jaheim’s new project benefited from a strong promotional push and also from its inclusion on the shelves at “big box” stores like Target, Best Buy and Wal-Mart. But other artists may not be so lucky, as those retailers are shrinking their CD sections and limiting the number of CDs they will carry. And independent music stores, long the backbone of soul music, have had to fight for their lives over the past few years, with a great many closing. This reduction in big box shelf space and indie music retailers puts some soul music artists at risk of their fans simply not knowing about a new release. Says Rick Rosenberg, Shanachie Senior Vice President of Sales & Marketing/Digital, “Retail still plays a part in the discovery process — despite all of our best formulated marketing plans, many find out about a new release by seeing it on shelves.”
A similar challenge exists in broadcast radio, particularly urban adult contemporary stations that have turned increasingly to talk shows and oldies, leaving fewer rotations for new adult soul music and fewer opportunities for music “discovery.” Consequently, broadcast radio’s impact on soul album sales has never been lower.
Those trends are unlikely to change soon, and so creative artists and labels are finding other ways to give adult audiences the chance to both discover and buy soul music. Concord Music Director of Online Marketing David Henson argues, “You can still succeed in getting music heard via internet radio, Soundcloud, Vevo/YouTube, and other avenues. If you have strong management, a strong press team, an artist with a unique message and a strong label behind them, you can still succeed.” And EchoPark JDI CEO, Dr. James Roberson, believes that artist touring may be the most important tool: “We have some artists who tour so heavily that they can sell $250,000 worth of CDs direct to their fans on the road. This is not only an opportunity to generate CD sales, it is a new paradigm of connecting directly to one's fanbase that also presents a golden opportunity to make the artist and their music ‘touchable’.”
Shanachie’s Grass agrees that, with challenges at radio and in stores, creativity on a project-by-project basis is important: “The key to selling adult soul music right now starts with the artist; if the artist is very active, especially on the touring front, their base is more likely to be vital and there is more for a label to work with. Success comes from putting together a number of different promotion and marketing elements that together will move the meter. There is no ‘cookie cutter’ approach.”
All this is to say that – despite some headwinds - after years of waiting in the background, soul music aimed at adults may finally have some daylight ahead, and it will be fascinating to see if it can take advantage of it. These opportunities being created at major international labels and small indie imprints will expand only if the initial forays in 2013 and 2014 are successful. And it appears that success will happen only if adult soul fans discover the new music and act on it. If soul music artists and labels can effectively reach out to adult music fans, and if those fans respond by continuing to be active consumers of new music, then soul music could find itself a genre on a longer term upswing, defying the downward trend of the overall music business. While victory is certainly not assured, you can’t win without getting a chance to play. And soul music appears to be getting its first real shot in this century. There is a small, soulful Field of Dreams being built; now let’s see if they will come.
By Chris Rizik