Growing Pains

It wasn't a good year. After a decade of double-digit growth, the music industry has come to a stop. Sales have flatlined. The concert industry is hurting. People are beginning to get scared."The sky is not falling yet," says Billboard magazine's Chart Director Geoff Mayfield. "But there are some concerns."Music has been one of America's fastest growing industries. Since the early '80s, record executives have been the star pupils of Reaganomics, posting incredible profits in a highly unpredictable trade. Pushed by MTV and the unveiling of CDs, profits soared.But the post-grunge era has been far from perfect. The industry is being downsized. Execs are desperately groping for the next big thing. Record sales grew by only one-half percent in '96, and have been moving at a glacial pace since 1994. Record Industry Association of America spokesperson Alexandra Walsh says that it's not the end of the world, just the end of an era."The slow growth in the last two or three years is being spun as a negative reflection on the music industry," Walsh says. "But in reality, the industry had an incredible run. We had 12 years of huge, double-digit growth. Against that backdrop, I don't think we're doing that bad."Part of reason for stagnation is the slow demise of alternative. Rap is still holding its own, if not growing. But since the early '90s explosion of grunge, alternative has tapered off. With stores awash in Nirvana knock-offs and mainstays dying on the vine, many critics are crying that the genre has run its course. The evidence: once guaranteed sellers like Pearl Jam and R.E.M., they of the $80 million contract, have fallen well short of expectations, with neither's latest CD breaking the million mark in record sales."There seems to be a changing of the guard," Mayfield says. "I'm not saying alternative is over, but it's selling a smaller number of albums than it used to."It's created a splintering of the market. New genres are being dubbed daily, from tribal to cow-punk to Americana, each drawing its own loyal audience. That makes it difficult for an across-the-board hit. Last year lacked what Mayfield calls "a pied piper release," an album that clear cut across genre lines and appealed to the mass market. 1995 saw two: Alanis Morrisette's Jagged Little Pill and Hootie and the Blowfish's Cracked Rear View, both selling well over 10 million copies.But it's also created a more diverse market. Walsh says the RIAA, which issues the gold and platinum designations for record sales, saw slow growth in both the platinum and multi-platinum categories, but had huge growth in gold records. (Records must sell 500,000 copies to achieve gold status.) She says it "indicates lots of products are selling well, though few are selling incredibly."Record sales also fell victim to the sophomore slump. Follow-up albums by major acts, including Sheryl Crow, Weezer and Candlebox, all came in below projections. Hootie's Fairweather Johnson never emerged from the shadow of Cracked Rear View. Some critics blame the MTV generation, claiming music has fallen victim to short attention spans. Others point the finger at radio, saying it no longer promotes artists, just singles. Mayfield suggests "part of the responsibility might lie with the artist" for writing bad material.But record sales aren't the only part of the music industry suffering. The concert industry is hurting as well. Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, a trade magazine that tracks concert ticket sales and attendance, says that even though the numbers were up from 1995 -- the concert industry cranked in $1.05 billion in '96 compared to '95's $950 million -- it's misleading. Bongiovanni says ticket sales increased because ticket prices increased, not because of an upswing in attendance."The problem with this business is that artists tend to look at what other artists are doing and think they can do it too," Bongiovanni says. "But it doesn't work that way. Many acts tried to price themselves too high, and thus '96 was not a good year in the concert industry."Concert promoters' woes paralleled that of record companies. With the normal barrage of shows hitting the circuit last year, the '96 tour schedule was bloated by the class of '76 -- Kiss; Sex Pistols; Crosby, Stills & Nash; Steely Dan; etc. Fans were forced to choose between nostalgia and their current faves. There were few winners. Styx and Kansas didn't come close to filling Hilton Coliseum. Perry Farrell's ENIT tour barely made it out of the red."There is a shift in the wind," Mayfield says. "All in all, 1996 was not a good year. Smart people should be concerned."

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