Chapter OneRemixing American Pop
Rap has been around for a while now it's really successful, it's powerful and still vibrant, but something else is going to happen soon.... The potential is unlimited. -BRYAN TURNER, founder of Priority Records, 1992
In 1989 Billboard magazine, the music industry's most important trade publication, held a briefing devoted to improving the way it collected sales data. Among the various people attending the meeting that day was a record industry executive named Michael Shalett. His primary areas of expertise included information technology, marketing, and market research. As Shalett listened to the various ideas being discussed, he could not believe what he was hearing. When the briefing was over, he left convinced that the methods used by Billboard were substandard and unreliable.
Next, he turned to Michael Fine, one of the nation's foremost research professionals and pollsters. Fine had distinguished himself as president of George Fine Research, a full-service, national and international market research firm adept at gathering public opinion. Established in 1935, the company developed some of the most widely used market research methodologies in the world. Exit polling, a technique the company helped refine, changed the way political projections are made and how election night results are reported. The collaboration between Shalett and Fine would have a similar groundbreaking impact on the business of pop music.
The same year that Billboard held its briefing the annual Consumer Profile of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported that rap music's market share was 6 percent. The numbers from the report could be read in at least two ways. For some, the market share was an indication that the genre, despite its relatively short career, had established itself on the pop music map. For others, however, the numbers suggested that for all of its noise and high jinks rap's popularity was still somewhat localized, if not ghettoized. In 1989, more than half, 57 percent, of all music purchased in the U.S. was purchased by consumers between ten and twenty-nine years old. Rap music's fourth-place share was an indication that the genre's impact, though commendable, was not necessarily formidable among its youthful audience.
Ten years later, however, rap's impact was undeniable as it was routinely producing some of the top-selling recordings of the year and establishing a prominent presence in the pop music landscape and beyond. Between 1990 and 2000 rap's market share more than doubled while its rival genres-rock, pop, and R&B-actually lost market share and the industry as a whole came face-to-face with declining sales. In the RIAA's 2000 Consumer Profile, rap's market share was second only to rock, roughly 13 percent compared to 25 percent. But even the most casual observers of pop music culture knew that rap's influence reached far beyond its own generic boundaries and official market share.
Rhythm and blues, a staple in American pop music for decades, had come under hip hop's spell as it began gravitating toward the grittier street-oriented beats and ghetto-theme lyrics that bolstered hip hop's aura and appeal. The resonance of hip hop was also detectable in more traditional pop fare. Just before the boy-band craze faded in the late 1990s, multiplatinum acts like N Sync and the Backstreet Boys adopted some of the edgier styles and lyrics typically associated with rappers. Even pop princesses Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, in their bid to go from teen idols to more mature artists, began working with some of hip hop's most sought after producers, performers, and choreographers in order to stay relevant in the movement's widening orbit.
Still rap's impact was never a sure thing. In fact as the nineties began the verdict on the genre, especially from the perspective of music industry decision-makers, was still out. The earlier inroads made by groups like Run-D.M.C., Salt-N-Pepa, and Public Enemy notwithstanding, rap was still looked at with a certain degree of scorn and suspicion by industry executives. Though it was clear that rap had already established its bona fides among key segments of the youth marketplace, it was viewed by industry heads as a genre with limited and even uncertain long-term appeal. But as the nineties unfolded much of the doubt about rap was erased as a combination of pioneering labels, artists, and entrepreneurs transformed the genre into a spectacular music industry. Surprisingly, the most important factor in rap's rise was not, at least initially, an innovative producer, MC, or entrepreneur. Rather, it was the introduction of a new information technology that tracked music sales with unprecedented precision.
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Two years after they set out to improve how the music industry collected sales data, Shalett and Fine stood ready and eager to introduce their invention. They called the new data and information service SoundScan. Confident that they had created an improved scientific and reality-based method both men realized that developing the system was only half the battle. Now they had to convince the big record companies of the value of the new sales-reporting method. In 1991, the "two Mikes," as music industry insiders would later call them, began aggressively shopping their data intelligence to music retailers and record companies. Media accounts reported that the initial asking fee for the service was $800,000. SoundScan had to make an investment of its own because it paid retailers a fee in return for providing the company with sales-related data. The record companies, however, not accustomed to paying much if anything for sales data, responded coolly to the service.
SoundScan's big break came when the editors at Billboard decided to begin using the service to compile its music charts. Over the years the Billboard charts have become one of the most important gauges of success in the high stakes world of commercial music. Billboard's listings of the top-selling albums and singles determine who is recognized as the industry's leading performers, which in turn impacts radio and video airplay, sales, industry accolades, and finally, of all things, chart position. The Billboard charts, in short, have the power to make or break careers.
SoundScan was a revolutionary idea. Prior to its introduction the methods used to determine sales and Billboard chart positions were archaic. Typically, music industry executives relied on the observations and hunches of record store clerks and managers who produced weekly reports that ranked sales trends. In order to determine chart position under the old system, Billboard would survey a jury of retail personnel and ask them to rank which albums they perceived to be the most popular or best-selling product. Under this system it was possible to gain a sense of which albums were "hot" but not how many copies were actually sold. The data was subjective and open to interpretation.
The subjective nature of the method created an obvious incentive for the music companies to try to influence the reports. There was rampant suspicion that the charts were affected more by hype than actual sales and may not have represented an accurate account of what product stores were actually moving. Over the years there were numerous stories about how reps from the major labels doled out free concert tickets, special promotions, and other perks as a way to encourage the kind of overreporting by stores that enhanced the profile and sales of their artists. Shortly after adopting SoundScan, then Billboard editor-in-chief Timothy White acknowledged that "Our old system was subject to manipulation and that people abused it. Store reporters could be bribed with clock radios and all sorts of amenities and favors."
Like film and television, the music industry has grown into a tenacious corporate machine powered by a few key numbers. The pressure to achieve commercial success has been an ongoing theme throughout the history of the industry, but new monitoring technologies, conglomerate ownership, and a global entertainment economy reinvented the business of selling music in the nineties. By the late 1990s four figures essentially dictated how the major music companies operate-the number of units sold, weekly radio spins, video rotations, and downloads. By providing new and more efficient ways of measuring those trends, new information technologies like SoundScan and Broadcast Data System (it measured weekly radio spins) changed the business of pop music. SoundScan became the most watched barometer for measuring commercial success and spotting key trends in the consumption of music. Thus, like the weekly box office results that have become such a major aspect of the business of film, the SoundScan data helped establish a blockbuster mentality that has made the pursuit of big opening-week sales, mega-hits, and multiplatinum albums an industrywide obsession.
Whereas the previous system relied on the hunches of store personnel, the computerized methods used by SoundScan provided what the corporate world refers to as "hard data." This information is perceived as manipulation proof and therefore more reliable. The genius of the system was that it used a simple bar code-recording format to transmit point-of-sale (POS) information to SoundScan's massive database located in Hartsdale, New York. SoundScan was able to take the POS information and supply the music industry with unprecedented data that told intricate stories about the market performance of specific albums, artists, and the companies that distributed them. In addition to tracking national sales, the new system could generate detailed data that measured an album's sales week by week, city by city, and even store by store. Within a few short years, the music industry executives would begin calibrating highly elaborate and specialized marketing strategies based on SoundScan's more meticulous reporting.
Early on, however, many of the major labels expressed concern about SoundScan. Most of the early complaints dealt with which stores and regions of the country were sufficiently represented in the SoundScan panel of national, multistate, and regional music chains. But others believed that the major labels' real concern was that the new method brought to an end a thirty-year-old system that allowed them to influence the all-important Billboard charts. The two Mikes knew that their service represented a threat to the established order. "There was definitely some reservation," Fine revealed years later. "They had a sense of control, and here we were trying to take that control away."
While the concerns expressed by the major labels may have been suspect, the new POS system generated genuine alarm among independent labels and distributors. The indie music sector knew that the so-called "mom and pop" stores were more likely to carry their product and also give a break to new artists the majors historically ignored. Their biggest worry was that while SoundScan could provide a more accurate account of music sales in the big chain stores it would underreport the sales activity in the smaller stores. In addition to endangering their financial health, underreporting could imperil the indies' ability to continue making music that cut against the grain of the hardened formulas and conservative taste preferred by the majors.
A few weeks before the introduction of SoundScan, the music industry, both majors and indies, held a collective breath-uncertain what would happen but fully convinced that things would never be the same again. Change was inevitable. Their concerns about SoundScan would prove to be both right and wrong.
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In its May 25, 1991 issue, the music industry's most important trade publication announced, "This is a week of historic change for Billboard magazine," adding, "it's full-speed ahead into the future." That week both the Billboard 200 and Country Music charts began using the piece count data supplied by SoundScan. In a move intended to allay industry fears about the historic shift, Billboard wrote that the new system would likely "cause some drastic movement of titles up and down the two charts this week. This is a natural adjustment to a radically different methodology." Billboard declared the charts would eventually settle down to more gradual patterns of movement.
As expected, SoundScan's impact on the Billboard charts was immediate. But the actual impact produced by the new system was also unexpected. Within the first couple months of the new system's implementation, the Billboard charts began to tell an intriguing story. While the presence of rock and pop music near the top of the charts was predictable, the chart-rising performance of country and rap music was not. Immediately SoundScan called attention to the commercial vitality of country and rap-two genres that prior to 1991 were widely viewed as having limited appeal. Both genres moved impressively up the Billboard charts, and by the end of the year were peppered throughout the Billboard 200.
The SoundScan data provided powerful evidence that the ranked reports produced by retail personnel had severely undervalued country and rap. Rather than reflecting actual sales, it turns out that those charts reflected the tastes, perceptions, and predispositions of store personnel that were unwilling or perhaps, more likely, unable to comprehend the cultural changes that were transforming the very meaning of American pop music. The underreporting of rap was a result of long-standing cultural sensibilities and racial assumptions that made it impossible to think of the genre as "pop music" in 199L And yet, by the close of the 1990s that was precisely the case; rap, as much as any other genre, defined American pop.
In the post-SoundScan era the very notion of pop underwent a radical revision. Before SoundScan pop was largely defined by aesthetic attributes-sweet melodies, stylistic conservatism, and amicable lyrics. After SoundScan pop was just as likely to be defined by economics and marketplace resonance. The focus in this instance was on weekly sales figures and dollars. Under the latter definition, it became necessary to expand how the industry and the culture defined and experienced pop music. The shift meant that genres such as rap, despite an emotional and aesthetic core that ran counter to tradition, could now be added to the pop mix.
The instant beneficiaries of rap's newfound pop status were the independent labels and distributors that served as the primary province of rap music production in the early 1990s. The information provided by SoundScan supplied the momentum and credibility to enhance the profile of indie labels while also solidifying the foundation that enabled the rap industry to grow and prosper.
Indie distributors like Tom Silverman, the founder of Tommy Boy Records, realized immediately how the new data altered the high stakes world of pop music. Silverman was one of the first entrepreneurs to get into the rap game when many were unsure it had a future. He was on the scene when hip hop began to first break in the early 1980s. The music hit him hard. Back then it was all still raw, fresh, and pulsating with an aura of newness and independence that touched his core. He started Tommy Boy Records in 1981. His motto for success was simple. It also characterizes the historic role of indie music labels: "See what they [the major record labels] can't see-or find an area that's so minor they don't want to be bothered with it. The major labels tried to mechanize it like Henry Ford, but what works for cars doesn't necessarily work for music." Tommy Boy made its mark by introducing some of hip hop's truly groundbreaking artists, like Afrika Bambaataa, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, and House of Pain, one of the first successful, harder-edge white rap acts. These and other Tommy Boy recordings enlarged hip hop's aesthetic sensibilities and artistic possibilities.