Last week, the music world laughed up a hiccup as Lil Wayne pranced around the VMA stage in nut-suffocating, Le Tigre-inspired jeggings. While that performance affirmed that Wayne is no fashion guru, his chart performance a week later reminded us that he's very good at something else-selling records, tons of 'em.
His latest, Tha Carter IV, docked at No.1 on Billboard after moving a staggering 964,000 units in one week. That's more than double what Jay-Z and Kanye West posted on their joint effort and 9 times more than Diddy's last outing. It's the second-best opening week performance this year, behind Lady Gaga's 1.1 million outing. Call it the Jeggings Bump.
But Wayne's case is an oddity in a crippled industry. In fact, the feat stunned everyone - including Wayne himself - and had industry insiders wondering if Birdman bought extra copies of Carter IV to spike sales. The Cash Money honcho denied it. And frankly, it doesn't make sense to buy a million copies of your own album in this economy.
For most artists not named Weezy or Gaga, however, a million units will remain a fantasy. Record sales continue to plummet across the board, and labels are still trying to map out a way forward. If you're wondering why Wayne and Gaga seem to consistently buck the trend, while others continually struggle, let's establish that it's not because Weezy's latest is the nicest thing since white loaf.
When Rick Rubin took over the mantle of leadership at Columbia Records, someone asked him how to rejuvenate the music industry.
His response? Make great records. But that argument doesn't hold up when you look at Billboard charts over the last five years. The two first-week champs of 2011 - Born This Way and Carter IV - rank among the most disappointing albums of the year. With a few exceptions (Kanye West, Adele), there's no correlation between quality music and big sales.
Some argue that piracy is still the biggest catalyst for spiraling sales. Drew "Dru Ha" Friedman, co-head of revered indie label Duck Down Records, recalls a time before HulkShare and Megaupload.
"Roughly a decade ago the debate took place on whether giving your music away for free on the internet or allowing illegal downloading was healthy for artists and record labels," Dru Ha tells Rocks Off. "Working through years of declining sales, I can say with confidence that illegal downloading and the legal sites that find ways to share artist's music without payment are the direct cause for sagging music sales."
Piracy, no doubt, plays a major role, but is it still the leading factor? Tha Carter IV, for instance, leaked ahead of its street date and still scanned 964,000 in a week. If piracy isn't the culprit, then what is?
Paul Porter, erstwhile BET program director and founder of Industry Ears, cites the unbundling of the album. "The recording industry is once again a singles-driven market," explains Porter. "The digital download is the new 45. Thank iTunes for making it possible to buy just your favorite song instead of a mediocre album."
It's impossible to ignore the role of technology in all this. Modern advances make it easy for aspiring artists to saturate the market and easier for consumers to ignore them. "Consumers have a lot more music to choose from, and tough decisions when it comes to what to buy and what to pass on," says veteran music journalist Alvin Blanco, author of The Wu-Tang Clan and RZA: A Trip Inside the 36 Chambers.
Experts disagree on the factors fueling strong sales, but the general consensus seems to be that consumers are becoming more selective. "Listeners understand bad product these days and refuse to waste space on their Ipods," says Porter. "Commercial radio can shove all the fake hits down the throats of listeners but nobody is buying it."
It's not all doom and gloom in the music industry. Through the first half of 2011, Universal Music Group saw its revenues drop 1.9%, an improvement over the first six months of 2010 when UMG suffered a 5.4% decline. Second half releases by Lil Wayne and The Throne should further strengthen UMG's numbers.
But what's the way forward for the rest of the industry? "Ultimately it comes down to quality and the strength of your fanbase, which is a lot tougher to extend from online into tangible reality than it seems," says Blanco. "Record sales may be down, but both Lil Wayne and The Throne (Jay-Z and Kanye West), or better yet Adele, have no problem selling records, last I checked."
The music industry needs to shed its skin every now and then in order to grow. The current business model is broken and will eventually pave way for a new system. For now, there's one thing that continues to yield results in the system: branding. Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, and Adele have no trouble selling records, because their fans are buying the brand not the product.
There's a lot of good music out there and you can find it if you know where to look. But it's not enough. At a time when labels are unwilling to get under the hood and get dirty, artist building is more crucial than ever.
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"If the industry returns to building artist instead of creating hit songs, the industry might see an Adele type resurgence," says Porter.
The message is clear: build a unique brand, and-bada bing!-success will follow. Jeggings are optional.