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
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
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
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
"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)
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
"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
of one-hit wonders. However, the concern is often misdirected, he added,
and critics need to consider the big picture when evaluating industry
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
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
"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
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
"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]