Seven weeks. That’s how long David Bowie’s “The Next Day” has been on the chart. It’s perched at number 99, having moved 4,060 copies in its latest week, putting it right above Matt Maher’s debut and four spots below Darlene Zschech’s “Revealing Jesus.” Never heard of them? That makes two of us, I don’t know who they are either.
What were the two biggest musical stories of this not so nascent year? Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience” and “The Next Day.” Timberlake sold his album via endless television appearances. He believed if we never lost sight of him, we’d be forced to purchase his LP, just to find out what the hoopla was all about. And Timberlake’s endeavor succeeded. Because he got traction at Top Forty radio.
Bowie got no such gift.
In other words, Bowie’s record was like a spaceship hurtling towards Earth, with news accounts trumpeting its imminent arrival, the danger, the hysteria, but at the last minute the flight path was altered, it didn’t enter our atmosphere, it sped on by and we all forgot about it and moved on to the next thing.
Some things last. Like Timberlake’s album and the Boston tragedy. But everything else in our society seems to get a fraction of time, a mere smidgen, and then it’s history.
It didn’t used to be this way. Used to be it was hard to get noticed, and if you broke through it was like walking into the backstage area of a classic rock superstar, with tapestries and gorgeous women and an endless buffet of caviar and alcohol. But today all those stars, at least the ones who survive, are sober. They don’t waste money on accoutrements. It’s all about the bottom line. They don’t tour to satiate their artistic urges, but to pay the bills.
When Andy Warhol said in the future everyone was going to be famous for fifteen minutes, we laughed, we didn’t know that it would literally come true. Last week’s viral video might as well be sealed in a time capsule. We’ve got a nation of endless grazers, always on the hunt for the next new thing, getting something to stick is nearly impossible.
But that’s what the music business is based upon.
It’s too expensive to have a momentary hit. What you want is something that lasts, that will generate ticket sales, that will sell catalog years out. But today that’s a rarity.
But it’s not only the purveyors who are clueless, but the consumers too. A fan wonders why his favorite act hasn’t gone nuclear, why everybody doesn’t like it, because he does. That’s like a stamp collector wondering why everyone doesn’t embrace his hobby. In other words, the paradigm, the structure, the fly by night world has been firmly established, but no one will acknowledge it.
Instead, we’ve got backlash.
CDs are better than downloads.
Vinyl is best, and it’s making a comeback.
Physical books are much better than digital versions.
Video entertainment is best consumed via cable, on a flat screen television.
But statistics tell us that whatever emotions are attached to the above beliefs, the trends are just the opposite. CD sales keep tanking. Vinyl is an almost imperceptible fraction of the market. Digital book sales soar as physical bookstores go out of business. Cable cord-cutting is real.
And you can read all of this, but very few embrace reality, because it scares them, it makes them feel inadequate, like they’re rootless and are unsure what’s coming down the pike.
First of all, we’re human. We don’t like anxiety, we hate not knowing what the future looks like, so we tell ourselves lies to establish order, to make ourselves feel better.
The truth is the media landscape is mirroring the economic landscape. It’s winner take all. Timberlake is victorious, he’s rich. Bowie loses, he’s broke. And you may not like this, but it’s the truth.
In order to last today you’ve got to be better than ever before. If you break through immediately, you must follow up just as good. Remember that guy with the contagious hit “Fireflies”? What came next wasn’t as good and most people have forgotten Owl City. Radio will play another one of his tracks, assuming it’s spectacular and it fits the format.
And radio is not immune to the game. All we hear from terrestrial services is a disinformation campaign, how radio is necessary and forever. Tell that to the television networks, which saw their market share plunge from 90% to less than 30%. Or Kodak, which was eclipsed by digital photography. The future is in your rearview mirror, and then it whips by you and obliterates you. Terrestrial radio will be a sliver of the future market. Its dominance is near its end. Not so much because stations were mishandled, which they were, but because no matter how good your horse and buggy are, you can’t compete with the automobile.
So you keep shoving your stuff down the pipeline, expecting a result from 1987, when MTV ruled and if the outlet played your video radio did too and you became rich and famous. But MTV sliced “Music” from its moniker and is financially challenged itself. And just like Apple and Google have all the money and you lost your job at the factory, the gap between winners and losers keeps growing.
Kind of like Brooklyn. If you read the press, you’d believe it’s a hotbed of cutting edge creativity that the rest of the nation will embrace when it pulls its head out of its rear end. But that’s the old game, where if the media says it’s true, it is. But now, the media has less power than ever before. We all gravitate to our respective niches and live in an echo chamber. In other words, the only people who listen to Brooklyn music are the ones who live there, who’ve been enraptured by the scene, the rest of us are turned off by the hype or are completely out of the loop. Furthermore, Brooklyn has never revealed its “Crazy” or “Gangnam Style.” Somehow, the hipsters believe the rest of the nation is going to work hard to embrace that which doesn’t grab them immediately, but the real story is we’re only interested in that which is easy to consume. Which doesn’t mean it’s bad, easy is not necessarily lowest common denominator, oftentimes it’s superior. But those left out of the equation don’t like this.
So what’s a creator to do?
Embrace your backwater. And realize it might be all you ever know, all you ever achieve. Yes, you can put in your 10,000 hours and not have 10,000 fans.
But the most important thing is not to embrace the old game, the one of desired ubiquity via hype. Because if it doesn’t work for David Bowie, it certainly isn’t going to work for you.
Source: Lefsetz Letter