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Celine, Garth, Chumbaqamba: 1997's Winners

1997 gave us ‘thumping’ to talk about: breakout acts like Chumbawamba helped the music industry, once knocked down, get back up again

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This time last year — when year-end figures for 1996 showed little if any growth in the record industry — the music business was rife with pronouncements of doom and gloom. But at the end of 1997, SoundScan figures showed sales up a robust 6 percent, and key albums like Celine Dion‘s Let’s Talk About Love, Garth BrooksSevens, and the Titanic soundtrack should continue busting down the doors into the spring. Happy days are here again…right?

“You know, I would hope that everybody is jumping up and down about this type of growth in a noninflationary type of environment,” says SoundScan’s Mike Shalett. “I think last year’s gloom was overstated. Now you have a 6 percent compounded growth…. That’s 6 percent higher up a big mountain.”

So where’s the parade?

Perhaps there’s reason for continued wariness when several key music-retail chains are just beginning to recover from near bankruptcy, having suffered huge losses following aggressive expansion and the success of highly competitive mass merchandisers like Best Buy.

But the real key to why music-biz types are still nervously refusing to break out the champagne may have to do with the kinds of artists driving the industry to such heights: Hanson. Puff Daddy. LeAnn Rimes. The Spice Girls. While they all have their defenders, few bettin’ men would lay big bucks on any of them still standing as what the industry likes to call “career artists” 10 years from now. It’s been half-joked that the careers of the late Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur — both of whom supposedly left enough material in the can for several posthumous albums each — could outlive them all.

Even so, it was a swell year for pop — as in light, carefree, melodic tunes, as opposed to the U2 album. It was a winning year for the womenfolk: Lilith Fair handily trumped the Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E. fests, and Fiona Apple, Paula Cole, and Erykah Badu broke big. Electronica even made some expected inroads — e.g., Prodigy’s chart-topping The Fat of the Land. It may have been a dandy year for diversity — but it was a rotten one for rock & roll, unless the interchangeability of platinum frosh Sugar Ray, Third Eye Blind, and matchbox 20 is your idea of a brave new world. Vets like the Stones, Aerosmith, and U2 could still draw a crowd but couldn’t convince ’em to go to the record store the next day.