Special Report: The One-Hit Wonder Strikes Again?

Industry surveys growing number of flash-in-the-pan acts to see where the blame lies.

Two summers ago, New York pop band Nada Surf lit up the charts with a song

called "Popular." Less than a decade before them, the British pop outfit

When In Rome had Casey Kasem proclaiming their tune "The Promise" as the

"biggest song in the land."

Today, Nada Surf is hardly popular.

And whatever promise fans made to When In Rome has been broken. Neither

band has been heard from since. This apparent trend of one-hit wonders,

which has exploded in the so-called "alternative" era, has industry

insiders either worried or ecstatic.

Depending on the pundit, fickle consumers and quick careers are either

the latest fear or the biggest boom to hit the music trade, launching heated

debates over whether the next big thing will be a single -- or an era.

Record companies get criticized for failing to develop artists, and

radio takes heat for going along with them. Retailers worry about the

future of

catalog sales, while the touring industry watches from the sidelines,

booking new artist after new artist while well-established acts such as U2 and

the Rolling Stones turn enormous profits.

Has artist development taken a back burner to the quick fix in order to

satisfy what the New York Times described in a Jan. 24 story in the

Living Arts section as a shrinking base of loyal rock fans? Maybe not,

said Bruce McDonald, former music director at Boston's WFNX-FM and national

director of alternative promotion for Polydor Records. Critics and

consumers often fail to realize that some bands are one-hit wonders under

their own volition, according to McDonald.

In fact, artists too often accept a major-label deal as the final chapter

in building a career, he added.

"Some of these bands are one-hit wonders because the labels fail at artist

development -- but then again, some bands only have one really good song,"

McDonald said. "Everyone talks about there being a lack of artist

development. The bottom line is the majority of the artists that are signed

right now

haven't done anything to develop themselves, and it's a very competitive

market right now."

The debate over artist development has become so hot recently that

Billboard magazine tackled the subject as its lead story in a

special "State Of The Industry" issue last week. Among the chief complaints

of the industry's elite included in the piece was one retailer's

observation that major-label bidding wars have caused a "disconnect"

between the cost of developing artists versus their individual success rates.

The piece went on to suggest that big breaks from newcomers are actually

welcomed by label executives -- since royalty rates and advances tend to be

lower for freshman artists. However, most insiders interviewed for the

article appeared alarmed by the crop of newcomers who never come back and

by Billboard's observation of a recent Sony report that profits

declined in the fourth quarter of 1997 due to artist development. Big

budgets for breaking singles and producing music videos, as well as the

subsidizing of non-stop touring, the article said, squeeze budget funds.

Competition for consumers wanes on the mind of Alex DeMers, president of

DeMers Consulting, one of the nation's leading radio-consulting firms.

As the mind behind 30 North American stations such as Dallas' KDGE-FM or

Philadelphia classic rocker WMMR-FM, DeMers said the marketplace isn't

necessarily fickle -- just busy doing things besides listening to rock 'n'

roll. "For today's radio, yes, things are more single-oriented," DeMers

acknowledged. "There's a ton of new artists releasing material every year, and

the job of knowing what is going to break has become increasingly more

difficult."

DeMers points out that in the alternative format, program directors have

developed a trigger finger -- basing their programming strategies solely

on proven hits. It's a problem, DeMers says, one that will only cease once

labels and stations alike can no longer survive one artist -- or song -- at

a time.

"There's a relatively small number of artists responsible for formats

such as modern rock," DeMers said, pointing to such bands as Green Day and

Nine Inch Nails. "Here, alternative programmers have become less patient.

Only the most strongly tested and researched songs survive. Quite often,

only one song by an artist will test as well as (Chumbawamba's)

'Tubthumper.' "

RECORD CLUBS LOSING

While the retail market has experienced growth over the past two years,

the specialty-market segment has crumbled. According to statistics

released last August by the Recording Industry Association of America,

revenues were down for the first half of 1997, a trend blamed on a

decline in record-club and mail-order shipments. Shipments during the

first half of 1997 were down as much as 9.7 percent, causing an almost

five-percent decline in overall revenue.

Though a final tally on the entire year won't be released for a few weeks,

RIAA publicist Alexandra Walsh said such specialty markets suffered

throughout 1997, which could likely mean that consumers are concentrating

on today's artists as compared to a record club's rich catalog of generally

older acts.

"Everybody's always trying to find a new way to market the product,"

Walsh said. "It's the nature of the business. There's an audience out

there that everybody is going to try and grow. And people are going to

make mistakes with that audience and money is going to be lost."

Rather than focus on the retailer to find where the alleged troubles are,

she added, you must look at the buyers who used the clubs during their

heyday, when collectors were focused on upgrading their cassette

collections to CD. "At retail, you've got a more dedicated consumer," Walsh

said. "And as long as the good product is out there, they'll buy."

John Ganoe, vice president of member services for the RIAA, acknowledged

that there's an industry-wide concern over fickle consumers and the

explosion

of one-hit wonders. However, the concern is often misdirected, he added,

and critics need to consider the big picture when evaluating industry

trends.

He pointed to Hootie and the Blowfish, who enjoyed phenomenal success with

their first album, Cracked Rear View, and did not equal that success

with their second, as an example of how statistics can be misinterpreted

when it comes to artists. While their second album, Fairweather

Johnson, sold far less copies than their 14-million-selling debut,

their sophomore album was still a multi-platinum seller.

"Of course," Ganoe added, "everyone will be quite interested in seeing

how [mega-selling alterna-songstress] Alanis Morissette's number two

performs."

A CONCERNED EYE ON THE INDUSTRY

Saying that he's not sure whether the concern over artist development is

over-exaggerated, Ganoe explained that he is certain that the industry is

surveying the situation with a concerned eye. "It's something that we're

looking at very, very closely. Are we doing what needs to be done to build

careers?" he asked. "Are we focusing too much on the quick fix and not on

building careers over time? I'm reluctant to call it a trend of some sort,

because you can look at artists whose follow-up albums performed very well."

But clearly, there's something intangible at play here, Ganoe said.

Some artists such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam

make a connection with a large fanbase -- and that connection holds. While

other artists such as Primitive Radio Gods and OMC create fanbases that can

best be described as "here today, gone tomorrow," he added.

According to a study by the tour-industry magazine Pollstar, the total

gross for major-market tours in 1997 was $1.3 billion, up from $1.05

billion the year before. And while ticket sales were up almost 24 percent

from 1996, the top-10 list of ticket-sellers was dominated by established

artists such as the Rolling Stones, U2, Garth Brooks and Fleetwood Mac.

Critics point out that the lack of artist establishment today could lead to

a doomed touring industry tomorrow, but at least one touring agent

disagrees.

"There's always a big show," said Geoff Gordon, an agent with

Philadelphia-based Electric Factory Concerts. Gordon, whose company

books shows throughout Pennsylvania and surrounding areas, said that

new artists usually do well on the live circuit, listing acts such as Sugar

Ray, Ben Harper and Third Eye Blind as new artists who've sold well.

And though he said he realizes there's more music nowadays, Gordon regards

this as an advantage to his business.

"The marketplace is definitely not fickle -- just diverse," he said. "You

have rock, alternative, alternative country, ska ... This makes our job

more challenging."

Still, he added, there was a time in the mid- to late '70s and early '80s

when the touring industry got hurt. Coincidentally, that's when

radio-consultant chief DeMers says AOR went mainstream and became Top 40,

leaving old dogs without new tricks (such as Billy Joel and Elton John) out

to dry.

"Some of the old timer promoters got burnt," Gordon said. "There were

agents who bet their life on six Foghat tours, but only got two.

"But we're turning out more Foghats," he said. "The good bands will

stay, the bad ones will fade away. Either way, there's always been a

market for people to come out and see them." [Wed.,

Feb. 18, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]