By Chris Willman
Updated January 17, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST

The song that’s been most covered around the record biz lately seems to be the old one made famous by that perennial hit meister Chicken Little. It’s more apocalypso than Macarena. ”In the music industry, 1996 will go down as a long, sour note,” lamented The Wall Street Journal, citing so-so sales and a lack of hot trends. The New York Times was even blunter: ”For Record Industry, All Signs Are Gloomy” warned a dire front-page headline last month.

In fact, the race to see whether ’96 would wind up a year of growth or stagnation looked to be a photo finish. When SoundScan released year-end figures this month, album sales were up from ’95 — albeit by just half a percentage point, to 616.6 million from 616.3 million. So the good news for the industry was, the sky isn’t falling. The bad news: See that constellation of stars up there? They’re painted on.

”I don’t get what people are talking about. The people that had hits are in a better mood than the people that didn’t, and that’s the way it’s always been,” sighs Mercury president Danny Goldberg, who, yes, had some hits. ”It’s not like sales are down. There had been some revenue growth, due to the conversion [from vinyl] to CDs, and that particular growth is over. The population of adolescents in the U.S. is reasonably flat. I don’t know why sales shouldn’t be more or less the same. Are there more movie tickets, or more of anything, being sold?”

Actually, yes; the film business did just enjoy a record year, up 8 percent from 1995. Until recently, the music industry had become accustomed to that same kind of growth, with sales markedly up each year for more than a decade before flat-lining in ’95. So why isn’t music still experiencing the same crescendo as the movies?

Heightened home-entertainment competition, some suggest. ”Maybe less money is being spent on cassettes and CDs, but overall, I don’t think less money is being spent,” says Reprise president Howie Klein. ”People are spending more time on computers. I see that as a challenge: to go where our consumers are and fill their needs.”

Billboard director of charts Geoff Mayfield figures Web competition may be a factor, ”but the industry has weathered this stuff before. During the post-disco crash, one reason cited for why the business was sluggish was the arrival of the videogame. But how great were the records that came out during that time?”

Not very. In other words, maybe it’s the music, stupid. ”From talking to critics and regular people who spend money to buy their music, I sense this wasn’t a great year for releases,” Mayfield says. ”Things work when musicians connect with the public.” And who were the few that connected in ’96? You oughta know.

— Women rock…big time. Few common denominators are apparent from SoundScan’s diverse list of the year’s top sellers — except that the top five albums all come from female or female-fronted acts (see chart): sensitive hellcat Alanis Morissette (7.38 million albums sold in 1996), good girl Celine Dion (6.13 million), the Fugees (4.51 million), No Doubt (4.36 million), and Mariah Carey (3.08 million). Extend the survey to the top 10 and women claim seven slots, with Toni Braxton and Shania Twain amid token guys Tupac Shakur, Metallica, and Oasis.