The changing face of the music business -- Artists, such as Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson, are now better known for a single than an album

No one ever said rock stars were supposed to last as long as Supreme Court justices. But once upon a time, you expected their careers to last longer than a Phish concert. In the old days, artists followed a time-honored formula: tour endlessly, establish an audience, attract new fans, and fertilize a catalog that allowed their labels to recoup for decades. This year, a variety of stars, many on the fast track to permanent success, spent 1998 singing the downwardly mobile music-industry blues.

Of course, 1998 wasn’t all bad: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and the Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty went triple platinum; soundtrack albums were wildly successful; and overall CD sales were up more than 10 percent. But performers as diverse as Van Halen, Marilyn Manson, Smashing Pumpkins, LeAnn Rimes, Hole, Garbage, the Cardigans, Pearl Jam, Seal, and Natalie Merchant all saw new albums slide precipitously down the charts. When Whitney Houston’s first studio album in eight years is greeted with SoundScan sales of 123,000 in its first week, you have to wonder if the music biz is out of tune.

”There’s no doubt that the record business is radically different than it was 10…even 3 years ago,” says Ron Fierstein, who manages Shawn Colvin. ”Everyone I speak to, that’s all we talk about — the bad shape the business is in from an artist-development point of view.” Though 1998 saw the multiplatinum ascension of artists like ‘N Sync and Jay-Z, they aren’t likely to generate huge musical catalogs. ”It’s horrifying,” says Reprise Records president Howie Klein. ”It’s almost as if we need to pop new bands just to support all these superstar acts that don’t make money anymore.”

So what went wrong? Paradoxically, it may be the industry’s very success that’s changed the fragile nature of fandom. As record companies are absorbed into even bigger corporations, the mandate has shifted to satisfying stockholders with quarterly reports. That means hit singles, and plenty of ’em. Says Janet Billig, manager of the Lemonheads and Lisa Loeb: ”The problem with a singles-driven climate is that it hinders an audience’s ability to develop ears. Whatever people hear a lot — that’s what’s good.” Ultimately, the industry has created a legion of fickle fans who can’t commit to anything beyond a musical crush. ”Kids are fed singles, and nothing else,” says Fierstein. ”They don’t get into whole albums — all they want to hear is the single. That’s scary.”

Nor are things likely to get easier in ’99. With the merger of Universal and PolyGram, insiders predict layoffs, dropped bands, and a quicker current toward the bottom line. ”Eventually, you’ll either have a hit single or you’ll be done,” says Fierstein. Even major retailers share the pain. ”In the short term, we’re blowing out tremendous numbers,” says John Grandoni, National Record Mart VP of purchasing. ”But in terms of careers, it’s not so good. The public just doesn’t have artist loyalty anymore.”

Still, not everyone agrees that career artists can no longer compete in this climate. Reprise’s Klein offers the ongoing odyssey of Aerosmith, a band that debuted in 1973 and has outlasted five presidents. ”Careers are a lot tougher than you think,” Klein says. ”Aerosmith went through a long period when everyone thought they’d never sell another record. Now they’re huge.” Of course, in 1998, Aerosmith’s biggest moment was ”I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” which just happens to be…a single.