published: 16 /
In 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll', Ben Howarth looks, amidst the decline of the record industry, at the phenomenal rise of Adele
It’s been a busy month for compilers of pub quizzes and 'The Guinness Book of Records', while ‘Professor of Pop’ Paul Gambaccini has barely had a moment’s rest. The archives have been opened, and filofaxes furiously amended, as one-by-one the records tumbled.
First, it was 'Dark Side of the Moon', and then a few days later, 'Brothers in Arms' was seen off, as the unstoppable juggernaut of Adele’s ‘21’ became the sixth biggest selling album in music history. (Since you ask, mine is not one of the 4.15 million households - one sixth of the country - to own a copy, but that doesn’t mean I’m not impressed.)
This wasn’t supposed to happen – haven’t we spent the last two years being lectured about how the poor old music industry needed unprecedented legal sanctions to combat the ‘threat’ of unlicensed internet downloading? And yet, in the midst of a back-breaking recession, and with fewer record shops on the high street than any time since 1945, the public have lined up in their droves to pay – with actual money – for Adele’s winning combination of a big voice and big tunes. I wouldn’t bet against Adele soon catching the number one seller, 'Queen’s Greatest Hits' (the undisputed champion, unless you count all the albums the Beatles sold in the 60s, which were never properly counted).
This comes despite another year-on-year decline in record sales, despite HMV very nearly going bankrupt and despite EMI being put into administration. The willingness to embrace Adele suggests that we haven’t lost the record buying habit. Perhaps the problem is not the masses stubbornly refusing to buy records, but the record industry stubbornly refusing to admit its version of popular taste isn’t all that popular after all.
No-one can say that there is a lack of music aimed at adults: Leonard Cohen, who is very old indeed, had a new one out a few months ago, while Tom Waits, who is younger than Cohen but sounds even older, got plenty of attention for his new album at the end of last year. Dylan is reportedly readying a new release in time for the Autumn, while Springsteen promotes his latest with another mega-show at Hyde Park.
But none of this is what we would strictly call pop music. Record companies cling desperately to a target market of young children and teenagers – the demographic with least money and the most willingness to download everything for free.
Take the latest rap/r’n’b sensation, Nicky Minaj, whose latest record comes in ‘adult’ and ‘safe’ formats. The adult version has a video of Minaj rolling around in the sand in a bikini, and will expertly appeal to a core demographic – thirteen-year-old boys who’ve turned off their parental internet filters and are watching it for free on YouTube. Adults, at least if they have any self respect, will be less impressed
Minaj explains that she makes the ‘clean’ version for children who shouldn’t have to hear swear words, while the versions with nakedly pornographic lyrics are for adults, who shouldn’t have to be ‘prudes’. Notwithstanding conventional morality, she’s clearly got it the wrong way round. Children are frequently fascinated by swear words; adults, hopefully, have grown out of finding swearing grown up.
Now, I’m not necessarily saying its bad music (though, you can all read between the lines). I just think that, in a failing industry, Minaj’s immense marketing budget is being wasted. Even if you accept the premise that this is cutting-edge music, you surely can’t deny that it will have a very limited appeal. Minaj is being primed to sell lots and lots of albums – but she won’t.
Adele – who, incidently, is by no means buttoned up – proves that it is possible to sell lots of records without pretending to be either an old person or a Disney character. Unless the music industry weans itself off music aimed solely at teenagers, the chances of anything capitalising on the door Adele has opened is slim.