In The Age Of Viral Video, Downloads And Plummeting CD Sales, What Makes A Star?

'If you're some schmo in Nebraska, this is your chance right now,' Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz says in the second installment of our three-part series on the future of music.

It used to be so easy: You released an album, it sold millions of copies, you were on the cover of major magazines, maybe on billboards hawking soda, and then Hollywood came calling with offers of cameos in major motion pictures.

In 2007, — the year the music industry broke — that script went out the window for good.

Even if you were the most famous rapper on the planet or the winner of “American Idol,” your album might have gotten lost in the shuffle as music fans spent their time downloading free albums from bands like Radiohead, watching the new “Chocolate Rain” viral clip, scouring gossip sites for news on Britney’s latest antics, dialing up Soulja Boy ringtones, watching bootleg clips on YouTube, buying the latest J. Lo fragrance or trying on some of Gwen’s L.A.M.B. clothes. All of which made those artists even more famous (or infamous) and maybe rich, even if it didn’t really add up to huge album sales on the Billboard charts, which used to be the main way of separating flavors-of-the-week from the truly mega.

Even a band that’s enjoying traditional platinum-level success — Fall Out Boy — knows very well that its true popularity can’t be measured by traditional means.

“We could complain all day about it, but I don’t know that anyone would’ve ever heard of Fall Out Boy if it wasn’t for peer-to-peer downloading,” bassist Pete Wentz said. “It was something that [made] a giant surge for our band.

“I just think it’s kind of an interesting time to be out there and be a band,” he continued. “It’s leveled the playing field. If you’re some schmo in Nebraska, this is your chance right now. You have a great idea, a great song — this is your chance.”

The Future Of Music

Part 1 :The Year The Music Industry Broke: In 2007, CD sales continued their freefall and superstars began bailing from major labels. And that’s just the beginning …

Part 2 : What Makes A Star These Days? CD sales are just a small part of it. We take a look at other ways artists are getting their names out there and making money …

Part 3 : The Future: What will the music industry be like in a year? Five years? We spoke with experts — they don’t know either but have some fascinating theories …

So, if the tried-and-true Billboard charts can’t really be relied on to tell us who is the hottest artist at any given moment — what can?

“I’m a firm believer that an artist’s cultural impact and their popularity has never been the same,” said Steve Stoute, a former executive at Sony Music and Interscope Records and founder of Translation, a company that specializes in pairing huge stars with huge brands, such as Jay-Z and Reebok (for the highly successful S. Carter Collection) and Justin Timberlake and McDonald’s. In a year when album sales took yet another double-digit dip — the seventh straight decline in as many years while a billion songs a month were downloaded, mostly illegally — Stoute said he doesn’t rely on charts to tell him which artists matter.

“Impact and popularity were never aligned in my mind,” he said. “Jay-Z never had a #1 song, but he’s been the most culturally impactful artist of the last five years. Celine Dion has sold way more records than Mary J. Blige, but Mary has had a much bigger impact.” Stoute defines that impact as anything an artist does that makes fans want to look, dress, smell and be like them — which lately has little to do with buying their latest album.

On that score, Stoute said he’s working on a top-secret project, which he hopes to unveil in late 2008, that will create a tool to help people like him measure the pop-cultural impact of an artist using a wide variety of factors. “Nobody’s found a way to measure cultural impact,” he said, “and I think the entertainment business needs to look at which artists on their roster may not sell the most records, but have a tremendous value in commerce.”

That value could be measured in the number of blog or gossip-column mentions, how many spins a record got in clubs or even a snapshot of the “pass-along” value of music, a measure used in the magazine world to set advertising rates based on estimates of how many times a magazine is passed from a subscriber to someone else.

Stoute isn’t the only executive dreaming up new popularity yardsticks. Steve Greenberg, founder and CEO of S-Curve Records and former president of Columbia Records, said the music industry is missing a chart that combines album and single sales with downloads, radio play, viral-video popularity and ringtones to give a picture of which artists are really on everyone’s brains from one week to the next.

“SoundScan gives you what albums are being bought by people going to stores, but that’s skewed,” he said. “If you could put all that data together, you could see what is really going on. You can still look at the Billboard Hot 100 to see, based purely on radio play and single downloads, what people are listening to — but in a way, what is the most-watched video on YouTube or MySpace, or which video is most viral, is the better measurement.”

To that end, Greenberg is part owner of a company called Nabbr, a widget-promotion network that allows users to decorate their MySpace pages or desktops with branded viral-video players, which, of course, are embedded with ads for things like Lil’ Jon’s Crunk Juice. “Kids can take these video players and put them on their MySpace pages and we can update them from our end with new material,” explained Greenberg of players such as the one found on WhateverLife.com, which rotates in 10 new clips every week from artists like the Jonas Brothers, the Pack and Jordin Sparks. “And we have a page where we can see how many people watched the video, how many watched it for more than 30 seconds, how many embedded it on their MySpace page and how many of those players on their pages got taken and copied onto someone else’s page.”

It’s not the only site offering branded, mountable players, either. Among a dozen sites with similar takes on sharing music streams are Fuzz.com, where you can make and share your own mixtapes; Haystack.com, which allows you to share playlists; and Mog.com, which lets users instantly listen to any song in any other user’s library or playlists thanks to a recent deal with Rhapsody (which has a partnership with MTV).

Greenberg said every major label group is using the Nabbr widget and, as an example of the kind of data it can collect, he pointed to an internal page on one of his S-Curve bands, We the Kings, that tracks, second to second, how many plays, views and embeds its video is getting, the number of MySpace and YouTube views and a male/female breakdown of viewers.

“What you have to do is separate out the people who are really engaging in music and those who are encountering celebrity through a perfume or the cover of People magazine, which is interesting, but doesn’t tell me how popular their music is,” Greenberg said.

Even if a chart, or widget, is developed that is able to synthesize all the information floating around us every day, the chances that an album like Michael Jackson’s Thriller — which was a monumental cross-format, cross-generational smash 25 years ago — could have the same impact today are very slim. Success, though, is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. Longtime manager Jim Guerinot, whose clients include Gwen Stefani, No Doubt, Trent Reznor and Social Distortion, said his bands know what they want and judge their success or impact accordingly, though not always in units shifted.

“If you want to be seen on the cover of People, that’s a different criteria than selling a couple hundred thousand records, so it depends on what your goal is,” he said. “For the artists I work with, nothing matters as much as doing what you want to do over a long period.” As an example, he pointed to punk lifers Social Distortion, who have been able to sustain a career since 1979, pay their bills and be creatively satisfied while selling a relatively modest number of albums and playing to steady, adoring crowds.

“Will Trent Reznor survive not being on Interscope?” he asked of the Nine Inch Nails leader, who very publicly split with his longtime label this year over his claims that it was overcharging his fans for music. “He did it before and he will after. Will it sustain at the level of stadium tours like [the reunion tour by '80s superstars] the Police? I don’t know.”

Though Year Zero was one of Nine Inch Nails’ lowest-selling albums in the U.S., Guerinot said the alternate-reality game that was launched to promote it was an unqualified success, with 1.6 million phone calls flooding a Cleveland phone number and 8.6 million page views for one of the game’s Web pages. “Was that as important as getting played on MTV or radio?” he asked. “We thought so. It dovetails with a larger, long-term strategy for his career that’s about creating a long-term relationship with fans, not selling a quick ringtone or having quick first-week album sales.”

William Beckett, lead singer for the Academy Is …, also knows that the numbers don’t always tell the truth. He has watched as other bands shoot up the charts and score #1 songs, but if they can’t fill a ballroom, he said, so what? “You certainly can’t measure things in terms of units sold,” Beckett said. “There are countless bands that have outsold us, but they can’t fill the rooms that we do. They don’t have fans that are real like our fans are real.”

Williams’ manager, Bob McLynn of Crush Management, told MTV News earlier this year that he has always gauged his artists’ strength by looking at its live-show and ticket sales. He said he feels that increasingly, the ability to be a strong live draw will play a more vital role in sustaining or launching careers. That equation might explain why companies like mega-promoter Live Nation are cutting so-called “360 deals” with established touring giants like Madonna, banking on the fact that the more people who see Madonna live, the easier it will be to sell more of her records, merchandise, DVDs and license her songs for commercial use at a time when the music charts have taken on the first-week make-or-break blockbuster mentality of the movie business.

These equations are being hashed out all across the rock and pop world, but they’re a bit harder to calculate for the majority of contemporary hip-hop artists, many of whom can rack up huge ringtone sales but whose album sales might be more modest, and who rarely have the benefits of earning extra cash by touring the country. Part of it is the result of the proliferation of what veteran manager Michael “Blue” Williams (Outkast, Killer Mike, Scarface) calls “ringtone rappers”: artists so focused on catchy hits that they don’t bother to put together a strong album to lure in more fans.

“You used to look at two or three things — like radio play or club play — but now you have to look at MySpace pages, iTunes and chat rooms to figure out what the buzz is,” Williams said. “It’s not just about what the physical, club buzz is, because if you’re getting 1,000 spins a week but no one’s talking about it on the Internet or you only have 4,000 MySpace friends, something’s wrong.”

No one has come up with the definitive new equation yet, but for now, according to Billboard Executive Editor Bill Werde, it will include all of the above factors, plus some we haven’t even begun to imagine yet.

“How would I define success in today’s music industry?” Werde said. “Maybe ‘survival’ would be a good word! I think the definition of success is changing a lot in the music business today. Once upon a time, it was pure and simple: ‘Did your record go gold? Did your record go platinum? Did your record sell a million copies its first week? If not, it’s not that hot …’ Those days seem to be gone. The way success gets defined in 2007, in 2008, it’s really changing. I think once upon a time it was just about the album — now I think it’s about, ‘Can I create a career for myself, and how do I go about doing that?’

“I think bands are more open and understanding of the idea that they make all of their money this year touring and the album becomes sort of a calling card for that. On the hip-hop side, success can be defined by your ringtone sales — T-Pain is going to sell a lot more ringtones than albums. That would’ve been unthinkable a couple of years ago. There are so many different ways to define success now.”

Check back on Wednesday, when the third and final installment of our “Future of Music” series rolls out.

Often guilty, never convicted. Serving 15 years to life at MTV News.