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Vimeo Killed the Radio Star

It’s hard for acts to sustain success in a world where the music just doesn’t scale anymore

So you’re 15 years old. You haven’t got a driver’s license, but you’ve got a computer, an iPad and an iPhone. Your parents insist you do well in school, you’re on the advanced placement track. Worldly in a way no generation including your parents’ was at your age previously, you see that we live in a society of winners and losers, and you don’t want the short end of the stick. So what do you do in your limited free time? Play the guitar? Sing in a band? Those odds are horrendous, almost no one succeeds, you’re dependent on too many others, and success never lasts. No, you develop an app, you pursue your tech dreams.

(From the pages of the April 2 issue of Variety.)

People in the music business don’t like this. They want you to believe the tunes are as good as they ever were, and if you challenge them, they say you’re too old, you listened to crap too, like the Beatles, the Stones, Elton John. … They want you to believe that Justin Timberlake is a national star. That what’s on Top Forty is universal. That Justin Bieber is forever. They’re delusional. The game has changed.

Once upon a time Top Forty radio was everything. It was your best friend. Want to know why it burgeoned? TRANSISTOR RADIOS! That was your heart’s desire in the ’60s, not an iPod; computers were something incomprehensible that filled whole rooms, you just wanted the tiny box that streamed your music via your best friend, the deejay. And when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, having honed their wares for years, the whole nation went nuts, everybody picked up a guitar to get some of what they had, fame, riches and sex. There are a lot easier ways to be rich, famous and get laid today, which is why the best and the brightest don’t go into music.

The baby boomers sustained the business during the classic rock era, the early ’70s, with FM and arena and stadium shows, but then the whole thing collapsed and was resuscitated by MTV, and then the Internet blew a hole in the music business so wide that those still in it can’t see it. The center is gone. The glue has melted away. Nothing SCALES!

Let’s start with this week’s big music business story. Justin Timberlake’s sale of almost a million albums. At wholesale, that’s not quite $10 million. David Bowie debuts with 85,000 albums, but this week he only sold 23,000, everybody who truly cares bought it, there’s no virality. Bon Jovi’s new album dropped by nearly 70% in its second week. If you think Bowie or Bon Jovi or even Justin Timberlake is going up from here, you’re delusional.

Hell, the only person who went up from here was Adele. Whose album sold purely on its music, she disdained almost all hype, the audience embraced it, everybody knows it, it scaled.

The reason Summly sold for $30 million is because the potential audience is EVERYBODY! That’s what musicians just don’t get. They’re
still living in an antique universe wherein if you’re anointed, you sell tonnage and get rich. Where exactly is that vehicle again? Radio is moribund and MTV plays no videos. There is no space program. Your only hope is to be the next Beatles, i.e. Adele, to create something undeniable, but all we’ve got is made by committee fads. Want to hear the next PSY record? NO, OF COURSE NOT! “Suit & Tie” was a radio stiff, like the initial Justin Bieber track from his new album, until the label muscled it up the chart. Justin Bieber is already over, he just doesn’t know it yet. As for Mr. Timberlake … Do you expect multiple singles over the course of a year? Could happen, but reviews have been positively mediocre. Mr. Timberlake’s success seems due to marketing prowess and likability. And that’ll get you in the door, but it won’t sustain you.

What we’ve got to confront is the old days are gone and may never come back. The reason “American Idol” worked is because it SCALED! You could reach the masses with something new, you could break … two acts. Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. After that, it was all about television, drama as opposed to music. Will there be another paradigm that blasts music to the top?

Possibly.

But where’s the audience? The audience respects innovation and excellence, which is delivered constantly in tech, but is rare in music.

So what you’ve got is a teenage Englander who sits at home and changes the world.

Isn’t that what musicians used to do?

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