The sound of young men singing and girls screaming continues to be music to the ears of the Bertelsmann Music Group as the music distributor cleared up one of its two most pressing issues as 1999 came to a close.
Jive, home to the Backstreet Boys and part of the white-hot Zomba Music Group, reupped its distribution agreement with BMG and on March 7, will issue the second disc of new material from ‘N Sync, which had been on the BMG-distributed RCA imprint.
It leaves only the question of what role Clive Davis, founder and architect of Arista Records, will play at the label after his contract expires in early summer. The issue came to a boil in the fall when Strauss Zelnick, CEO of BMG, which owns Arista, called for a successor plan that would put Antonio “L.A.” Reid at the helm.
Reid is currently the head of LaFace, which BMG owns half of. Should Reid take over Arista, BMG would purchase the other half of LaFace.
BMG has elevated itself to the No. 2 record company in the United Sates with a current album market share of 19.6%. Even though it’s second to Universal in market share, BMG acts were arguably the year’s most visible: Backstreet Boys, Santana, TLC and Puff Daddy. Although Sean “Puffy” Combs and Prince posted disappointing results, their returns to the recording fold were heavily watched and reported affairs.
“We’ve done a lot of cost reduction but all of our labels are profitable,” Zelnick said. “I’m proud of our management team and its stability. We’re doing well but we can do better.”
Much of BMG’s success, Zelnick agrees, is tied to great timing. Davis produced the Santana record at a time when rock radio needed a superstar; TLC’s “FanMail” was recognized as head-and-shoulders above the competish in R&B; and the teen market absolutely exploded in 1999 after building steam for much of ’98. (BMG also handles Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera).
Timing, in a cyclical business such as the music industry, is often the difference between being perceived as a genius or as out of touch. Certain pay-offs were through the roof in 1999:
- Teen acts and the tube. They may have appeared to be a dime a dozen but youth-oriented TV outlets the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon provided repeated access, for the first time, to relative unknowns such as Bewitched and Christina Aguilera. A taped concert of the Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync was perfect fodder for cablers to attract auds.
- Boomers will pay for the memories. Bruce Springsteen, provided he has the E Street Band in tow, proved once again he can sell out any arena within the playing time of the first side of “Born to Run.” Average ticket price: $75. The Rolling Stones can still find 70,000 people in any city in the world who want to hear Mick Jagger sing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” one more time. A good seat in most American cities: $90; Bob Dylan again toured with another superstar on the bill. To be able to hear and see Dylan and Paul Simon stroll together from the ’60s into the ’90s: $125; Top ticket for Bette Midler in Los Angeles: $249; starting in February, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young will be playing to front sections of concertgoers who have paid $202 per ducat.
- The future of rock ‘n’ roll is the Internet. Whether through live concert broadcasters, such as hob.com or knittingfactory.com, or virtual A&R divisions, such as Doug Morris and Jimmy Iovine’s Farm Club, the music industry is entering phase two of ‘Net usage. MP3 has opened the garage door for thousands of bands and singer-songwriters and the record labels, which have used Web sites primarily as publicity tools, are embracing the technology in marketing, A&R and promotional capacities.
- The return of Carlos Santana. By pairing the guitarist with an assembly line of young singers and instrumentalists, Clive Davis and Arista pioneered the decade’s greatest comeback. In truth, however, Santana has been a valiant road warrior for decades, touring intelligently and delivering inspiring shows that have always had solid word-of-mouth follow-up. Certainly, labels will be looking for other “legends” to subject to the same treatment. Brian Wilson? Rod Stewart? Joan Jett? It’s anybody’s guess.
- Street credibility. Nothing has replaced street cred when it comes to rap. Through using the street teams that create awareness of a new record weeks and even months before its release have become crucial to launching new rap albums. DMX, with unquestioned street cred, managed to release two discs and have the No. 1 album the first week and the last week of 1999. Problem ahead? Figuring out how to add career longevity to the mix.
- Bring the audience the world and they will listen. The “Buena Vista Social Club” proved that there is a growing audience for indigenous music from other parts of the world. Brazilian musicians such as Caetano Veloso and Carlinhos Brown had impressive years as did Cape Verde’s Cesaria Evora and Mali’s Toumani Diabate.
- Star power. The year’s biggest hype went to English-language Latin pop. It wasn’t the musical style that was embraced so much as the charisma and good looks of the performers. Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, Jennifer Lopez, Lou Bega and Marc Anthony sold records, the genre didn’t.
The concept of longevity continues to get good play at 1999’s No. 1 recorded music outfit, Universal Music Group, which had 26.85% of current-album sales. After beginning the year by handing out countless pink slips as the labels of Polygram — A&M, Mercury, Island, Def Jam and others — were assimilated into the Universal fold, the individual labels took focus in the second half of the year. One of the label groups, Interscope, which now includes Geffen, DGC and A&M, managed to claim more than 9% of all album sales in the U.S., making it the No. 2 label based on album sales.
Jay Boberg, president of MCA Records, saw his portion of the Universal pie do what few others could do in 1999: break a guitar-based rock act. Blink 182 and their “Enema of the State” album sold more than 3 million copies.
“Blink was a lifestyle-oriented band and we worked it in a way similar to how we broke Sublime,” Boberg said. After tapping into Blink’s skateboarding core, “we were able to spread into the greater population.”
Boberg attributed the label’s success to a “clear vision,” noting the label’s greatest responsibility in 2000 is “to continue to push forward with artist development and (develop) career bands.”
Career acts impressive
It’s an easier-said-than-done task in the modern era. For example, Warner Bros., a label that has been built on career acts, found its greatest success story in a fluke: a dance record from Cher that proved to be the bestselling single of the year. Beyond that, WB had to suffer through less than impressive numbers from the likes of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Wilco, CSN&Y and R.E.M. Its bright spots were the Goo Goo Dolls and the Reprise acts Filter and Orgy. The market share for WEA, which includes Elektra and Atlantic and their associated labels, dipped more than three percentage points to 13.68% in 1999.
“The days of being able to release one record off a successful record are over,” said Russ Thyret, CEO of Warner Bros. Music Group. “There are acts like Wilco that you never give up on because you figure, after awhile, something that is that good will catch on. Though you do have start to question whether you have reached a sales plateau.”
That’s a question that even the marketers and sellers of teen products have to answer. Once these acts hit, a marketing exec said, they often have a shelf life of about two years, which means rushing product into the pipeline. Yet Nine Inch Nails proved, with the release of the long-awaited “The Fragile,” that it’s difficult to bring back fans after a four-year absence regardless of how much positive press a record receives.
It appears that about the only acts who understand that fans and the industry can accommodate an album a year are Beck and Ani DiFranco, two artists who never dazzle anyone with sales figures but maintain uncommon steadiness and the allegiance of critics everywhere.