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summer 2003

Is pop music going underground?


  by Ger Tillekens
Just like most of readers, here at Soundscapes we have entered the summer season and it's time for a sunny period of rest and leisure. Our minds and bodies are ready for it and hopefully the climate change will take care of the external conditions. Of course, we will go on supplying you with some interesting reading stuff, though maintaining a somewhat slower refreshing rate. Meanwhile we propose, while sipping your favorite drink and listening to your favorite music, you may ponder some interesting questions. As, for instance, the question what is happening to popular music at the moment. Has it gone underground and what is it doing there?
What do we mean by this? Well, look at the sales figures of the US recording industry. The graphs below show that less units are being sold over the last few years. The total year value is falling even faster — the figures shown have been corrected for inflation. This, however, does not imply that people are less involved with listening to new music and enjoying it. They just seem to have found new ways to acquire their favorite goodies, as the sales of recordable cd's have risen.
  Numbers of sold units (left) and corrected sales figures (right) of the US music industry in dollars: LP's (blue), CD's (green), cassettes (light blue), singles (lilac), music video's and DVD's (orange) and sum total (red) from 1975 to 2001 — in millions. Source: RIAA, 2002.
As we all know, the record industry is blaming the Internet distribution of MP3-files and the copying of their releases with recordable cd's. They fight in the court rooms with Internet distributors, meanwhile trying to convince producers of hardware to furnish their products with copy-protection algorithms. But is it really their music that's being burned by a growing host of young and also older people? Asking young people about their music choices, I noticed many of them are just fed up with what the music industry is offering them. Instead, they're looking back in the past, returning to the music of old jazz artists. "That's really good music," they say, "and you can get it at a cheap price." Others are going regional, looking for the work of small local bands everywhere they come and spreading it around among their friends. That way, for instance, the Sardinian fanfare Banda Ionica, now is acquiring a growing mass of European fans.
More and more people, moreover, seem inclined to abandon the concept of the preformatted song album. Instead they prefer to build their own collection of songs on the hard-disks of their computers. Their argument commonly says: "Why pay 13 euro or dollar for an album with twelve to fourteen songs, if you only like one track?" In the mean time the record industry responds to its diminished cash-flow by furthering a star system, which still attracts many people. Some big stars and some really big-selling records still can uphold the sales figures. This policy, however, works at the expense of the marketing of new bands and their fan bases, which in turn may increasingly look for new ways to distribute and enjoy their music.
Are the pop charts, based on the sales of legal singles and albums, still reflecting the changing music preferences of the public? What is happening down there behind the pop charts, in the underground arena of musical tastes? Do the song collections, people nowadays are building for themselves, still have any connection at all with the pop charts presented by the music industry? These, no doubt, are important questions for popular music research. Just think it over, while you're listening to your own song collection this summer. And, if you have any answers, let us know after you have returned from your vacations. If we get sufficient response, we just may decide to publish it.
  Our Dutch readers can find a more extensive analysis of the Dutch music industry in this respect in my article: De terugkeer van de song.
  2003 © Soundscapes