Making sense of pop music
An inside look at why Madonna and Prince albums stiff while upstarts like Arrested Development and Pearl Jam kick booty
Anyone who thinks the music business hasn’t gone off its beam wasn’t in the Century City office of attorney Bert Fields recently when he held a bizarre press conference just to announce that Michael Jackson, his client, was going to be ”more receptive from now on.” Denying press reports that Jackson had (a) wanted a white boy to portray him as a youth in a Pepsi commercial and (b) insisted that there be only one Clinton inaugural ball, starring himself, Fields was painting a new picture of his aggressively screwball client. ”He was reclusive before,” declared Fields, ”but the ’90s demand more reality and accessibility.” Yes, this says plenty about Jackson’s career just now, but it also speaks pumped-up volumes about the state of music today. Lately we’ve seen Michael holding forth all over TV, and we owe this presumed pleasure less to Jackson himself than to the likes of Pearl Jam, Kris Kross, Garth Brooks, Metallica, and Billy Ray Cyrus.
The King of Pop’s career, in fact, forms a microcosm of how music has been stood on its head. Jackson’s Dangerous album, the first product of his estimated $65 million Sony pact — the highest deal yet in the music biz — has sold more than 4 million copies in 15 months. Not bad, but pretty soft when compared with the new princes of pop who have managed to match or outpace him. Brooks’ The Chase sold more than 5 million in its first two months. Metallica’s self-titled smash has reached the 6 million mark, as has Billy Ray Cyrus’ Some Gave All. Jackson’s Sony label mates Pearl Jam and Kris Kross have each sold 4 million copies of Ten and Totally Krossed Out, respectively, and both were recorded for a fraction of Dangerous‘ reported $10 million budget.
If there’s any one question the music industry might be asking when it gathers for the Grammys on Feb. 24, it should be, What happened? As deals get wildly more expensive by the minute, nothing seems as predictable as it once was, nothing works like it should, and MTV is blasting out a whole new set of heroes. Onetime giants are producing albums that arrive with embarrassing thuds. Bruce Springsteen’s biggest-selling album, 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., sold 12 million copies; his latest, Lucky Town and Human Touch, managed only a million each. Madonna’s biggie, Like a Virgin, sold 7 million in 1984; her new Erotica has stalled at the 2 million mark. Prince hit 10 million with Purple Rain, but has done one tenth of that with [Prince].
At the same time, new artists who thought they were superstars after big first albums are finding out they aren’t. Just ask Vanilla Ice, who sold 7 million copies of To the Extreme and only 500,000 of its follow-up, Extremely Live, or Wilson Phillips, whose 5 million-selling self-titled debut was followed by Shadows and Light, which sold barely 1 million.
Are music careers becoming increasingly shorter? For the few, no. For the many, yes. ”The great artists will have long-lasting careers,” says Ron Oberman, senior VP of A&R at MCA Records. ”But I think there are fewer of those artists today than there were 15 or 20 years ago. No matter what the medium, there’s so much saturation everywhere it makes it difficult to last quite as long.”
Meanwhile, despite talk about how staid the Grammy nominations always are, many of the year’s hottest bands, both in terms of sales and industry heat, actually were nominated this time — albeit in the new-artist, hard-rock, and metal categories. It’s a small change but a symbolic one. Because while the media were busy focusing on Springsteen, Madonna, and Prince, the talk on the street was about more down-to-earth and affordable acts like Arrested Development, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kris Kross, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Helmet, Pearl Jam, and, of course, Nirvana. They’re all up for Grammys, just like Springsteen and Jackson, but without the pesky ”heavy industry expectation” baggage. They’re the new kids on the block — and on the tube.