Five years ago, a no. 1 radio hit and a crushworthy singer were all you needed for a platinum plaque. These days, it’s not so simple. After the Napster revolution and three years of declining sales, the guidelines for global pop domination are more complex than Michael Jackson’s plastic-surgery bills. Want proof? The industry’s latest savior is a shy, soft-spoken jazz singer. Yes, when Norah Jones’ sophomore album, Feels Like Home, stuns the biz by selling over a million copies its first week — the first to do so since ‘N Sync’s Celebrity in 2001 — we’re not in TRL land anymore. Jones’ week was good news for the bean counters, and her rise shows how the rules have changed in the iPod era.
1. Adults Are People Too!
Move over, you IM’ing, belly-baring, Red Bull-pounding punks. The record industry’s new favorite demographic is…Mom and Dad! ”There’s been such a focus on youth and beauty that it’s gotten ahead of the reality, which is that kids don’t have as much money as their parents do,” says Zach Hochkeppel, director of marketing at Jones’ label, Blue Note. Santana’s 1999 smash Supernatural kick-started the graying of pop; the demise of Lou Pearlman-engineered teen pop seems to have quickened the pace. Recent boomer-oriented CDs from Sheryl Crow, Harry Connick Jr., Rod Stewart, and Michael McDonald have beat expectations. So be prepared for the PR push on the upcoming discs from Elton John, Diana Krall, Eric Clapton, and Tony Bennett.
2. Record Industry: Still Not Dead
Just when everyone was about to stick the CD player in the attic, here’s optimistic news: The music biz has seen more than five months of continuous growth. Sure, total units sold in 2003 were down 3 percent from the previous year, but the Feb. 9-15 week saw 17 million albums sold. It was the largest week ever outside October and November, thanks to Valentine’s- and Grammys-inspired purchases. Expect a muted celebration of pizza and beer over at Sony, Universal, EMI, and Warner.
3. TV Is the New Radio
Conventional music-biz thinking says get your artist on the radio and you’ll have a hit. Not anymore. For Jones’ first album, Blue Note used TV commercials, licensing deals, and late-night talk-show gigs to build buzz well before she crossed over to Top 40 radio. ”They’re figuring out that the correlation between airplay and sales is not what it used to be,” says Michael Gelman, executive producer of Live With Regis and Kelly. ”They’re discovering that TV shows drive album sales.” Proof: Josh Groban’s ”You Raise Me Up” isn’t on the Billboard Hot 100 radio-airplay chart, but after a non-boob-flashing appearance on the Super Bowl and Oprah, the crooner’s sales more than tripled.
4. Downloading: Not So Evil?
The RIAA continues to file lawsuits against individuals accused of swapping copyrighted music, but does illegal downloading actually hurt CD sales? The success of Jones’ Feels Like Home suggests otherwise, says Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne, which tracks file sharing. ”She is one of the most downloaded artists of all time,” says Garland, ”which disproves this idea that illegal downloads cannibalize CD sales.” And instead of downloading just one of her songs, Garland explains, file sharers are snagging three to five. Concludes Blue Note’s Hochkeppel, ”People who download [Jones] truly might be previewing it…they don’t want to get burned by buying a record with one good song. If they like what they hear, they’ll probably go out and buy the record, too.” The same does not apply for single-driven artists like Kelis, Liz Phair, and the Ying Yang Twins. Which leads us to rule No. 5…
5. It’s the Music, Stupid
Norah Jones lured one million buyers her first week (and a chart-topping 395,000 the next) by — drumroll, please — making good music. In recent years labels have focused on short-term returns, forgetting that albums need more than a good single, and that bubblegum loses its flavor faster than Britney sheds her shirt at a photo shoot. But Norah Jones represents a return to the old-fashioned values of quality and consistency. Likewise, OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is a breakaway hit because it’s fun, intelligent music that’s worth the sticker price. Now, if the record labels can remember that it’s about the music, and not just the money, maybe they’ll return to a place that Feels Like Home.