Problem Solving: Billboard Idle
By James Rando
Jan 20, 2006, 23:14
Hello, fellow Smartmarks, and welcome to the first ever edition of Problem Solving, where I attempt to take a problem, regardless of how superficial it may be, and try to come up with a way to solve it. It could be something political, cultural, social, and maybe even involve professional wrestling if such a thing is requested. The topic of my debut, however, is about the music industry. I shall outline the problem in as much detail as possible before trying to come up with a solution to make, in this case, the music industry a better place.
The Problem: Extra! Extra! Radio Star found deceased!
Ever since the launch of Music Television in the early 80s, more and more people inside the music industry have put looks ahead of talent in terms of who will be their next big star. The “pop” genre has slowly but surely won over the hearts and wallets of every young teen in the country, starting with the mallrat queens of Debbie Gibson and Tiffany before heading into the 90s with the New Kids on the Block, just to name a few of the teen pop acts to crop up at the time.
A lull in the action came between the New Kids and the late 90s rebirth of bubblegum pop, where it seemed the fans had enough, with alternative rock and gangster rap taking the music video nation by storm. Children went from listening to “Hang Tough” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” within a few short years, and the face of the industry was changed. Sure, the pop acts still existed and thrived, with Mariah Carey, among others, keeping the straight-laced buying records while the rest of the world delved into the likes of Dr. Dre and Pearl Jam. It was the true beginning of the melting pot of the mainstream music industry. For decades, fans chose to connect with rock, folk, disco, new wave, hair metal, ‘corporate rock’, and other genres mostly based on what happened to be playing on the radio.
The radio was the biggest outlet record labels had in promoting their artists in the pre-MTV era. Sure, there were still shows on television that had music acts and helped with publicity, but the radio was the key. It was the radio that made songs like Stairway to Heaven and Hotel California into the mega-hits they were, and for the most part it did not matter what the people in the band happened to look like, unless that was a part of their appeal such as during the teen heartthrob era of the 70s. Mostly, however, bands made it to their level of popularity on the talent and skill they possessed. If they happened to have a good look about them, then that was all the better, but it was not the primary focus of why you should be watching and buying albums of a particular artist like it is in the year 2006.
The current environment of music exists on four basic points. In the order of importance to the industry, they are Looks (L), Marketability (M), Staying power (S), and Talent (T). The formula goes:
L + M + S + T = Long-Term Success.
The key to the equation is “Long-Term”. When one of the four is non-existent within an artist, the other three must be that much better for any sort of impact to be made, though it is almost impossible that the artist or group will have any sort of long-term success like so many have done in the past. In most cases, the missing piece of the puzzle happens to be talent. Now, when I say this, I am not saying that all current musicians are not talented. I know that I can not write a song, sing, or play an instrument, but I can look at an artist and listen to what they have produced and know whether or not they truly belong in the spot they are in.
When I say “like so many have done in the past”, I am mostly referring to the pre-music video or classic rock era of modern music. The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, The Who, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, and so many others did not necessarily follow the formula presented, and even if they did they did not have to. Music was not about the way you looked as much as it was about your talent. Bands thrived on the way they sounded, and that was what drew the audience. Even when band members did something newsworthy, like the Who drum explosion, the Hendrix flaming guitar, the Led Zeppelin shark incident, or Jim Morrison’s alleged on-stage exposure, it was an attention-getter, but it was not as much a focus of the artist or group like it can be in today’s society. There are artists around now that seem to thrive more on the corporate machine than anything else, and it is near sacrilege to those fans that have seen through the lies and found themselves harkening back to when albums were bought and sold purely on the content rather than the cover. Sure, there are bands from back then that may have been missing a part of the puzzle but still show up from time to time on a classic rock station, but even one-hit wonders deserve some due.
The one-hit wonder really is an anomaly to the process, as they first appear to have mastered the formula, but quickly fall apart once tested. These artists and groups are the proof that the hardest part of the formula is not in the look or the talent, but in the staying power. Usually, it has to do with how a band is marketed and used by their label, and any sort of fickle change of heart by the label or by the fans buying their albums, usually from a lack of talent, causes the entire formula to fall apart. As an example, I shall use the Rembrandts.
The Rembrandts released their first album in 1990, which featured one semi-hit single in “That’s Just The Way It Is, Baby”. Their next hit came four years later, which is the one that everybody knows, “I’ll Be There For You” also known as the theme from “Friends”. The song was not even supposed to be on the album, but after the show began to take off, they had to add it in. The album “LP” was their third release out of four, with the fourth coming seven years later in 2001. To compare, Mariah Carey also put out her first album in 1990, and by 2001 had just put out her eighth. All of them had at least one hit song, and while she has shown to be more talented and have much more staying power and even marketability, it was the gimmick of theme song that had the one-hit wonder Rembrandts probably more well known world-wide than a Mariah Carey tune.
In 1995, people may have called the Rembrandts the next big thing, but they did not have the essentials of the music industry version of the formula that someone like Mariah Carey had. Mariah had the talent, but she also had a look that the industry knew would sell records and sell-out concerts. She didn’t need to have a theme song to her credits. One can guess that without “Friends”, the Rembrandts may have vanished off the face of the pop music world completely without so much as a peep after the release of their third album, or maybe even continued on to try and get themselves noticed, but instead this is one of the many examples of how the industry used and abused the formula for their own personal gain. The Rembrandts had some talent, but they did not have the kind of talent that made them marketable or created any sort of staying power for their music. They had “Friends”, and while it kept one song alive, it could do nothing for the band. If you do not believe me, ask any one-hit wonder. One might be able to make a comfortable living off a ten-year old song that was number one for a few weeks, but they will still always have that moniker attached to them and to the fans, regardless of how much they like the song, that is the only thing they’ll remember.
Regardless of what anyone thinks, an artist needs talent to make it in the business and to not just be another bust, but they also need some kind of backing. Sadly, they usually do not get the backing they need unless they have some sort of marketable look or gimmick. This is a trend that has slowly risen in popularity ever since the dawning of the video music era. We can see it any time day or night by turning on VH1, MTV, or BET. We can hear it on the radio. In recent years we, the fans, have become guilty by association with the creation of one of the most watched television shows of the last five years - “American Idol”.
This show prides itself on creating a superstar, and that’s exactly what they do. They pull people in and have instant marketability with whomever eventually wins the contest at the end of each season. The american people know the name of almost every contestant, or at least the final two. The people know how they sound and know that when an album appears they will be right there to buy it up. They may even know that the creators of the show end up with a piece of whatever that album sells.
It is in the show’s best interest to push every contestant like the next big thing, because in the end they want the fans to put their money down for the winner. But regardless of how well a Ruben or Kelly sells, it doesn’t matter as within six months there will be another contest and another winner to push with all their might. It’s an infomercial running three times a week live right in front of millions of music-purchasing americans. It is one of the most genius ploys ever created by the music industry and is also one of the worst.
I have known people to try out for the show and get turned down for being “too good” or “too trained”. You would think that is what they are looking for, but no. They are looking for someone they can mold into their idea of a pop music star, and not have to worry about previous training or thought processes getting in their way. You would assume they do it because they don’t want the contest to be one-sided in any particular direction, but that’s not the case at all. They are simply trying to manufacture the formula from the ground up, searching for the right look and the right form of talent to go with the look, then using the show as their way to being the process of marketing the eventual winner to the public. Therein creates another problem: It is impossible to manufacture the formula.
It truly is impossible. It may work for a while, but once the gimmick of being a winner begins to wear off and talent has to take over, it may just be the beginning of the end. This is what happened to Ruben Studdard, as his debut can considerably be called a mainstream flop, however Kelly Clarkson has slowly began to adjust, and while she may not be a long-term Mariah Carey-like pop superstar, she will still make it farther than she would have made it without Simon Cowell and the fans of “Idol” behind her.
One can also include “Making The Band” in this category, as it was even worse with it’s blatant showcasing of how a boy band is built from the ground up, going so far as to find people that have had almost no prior contact and creating characters and personalities for them to abide by knowing that millions of fans will flock to it like sheep. To some, it was a disgusting betrayal. A knife to the chest of garage bands and solo acts that toil for years and years on end in the hopes that they might make it to a big stage, only to have to open for or watch from afar a group of liars with minimal talent being shoved down the throats of the fans they fought so hard to win. And the fans swallow it all greedily, because they have watched this band since day one. They have a connection that involved almost no music, but instead a barrage of advertising, public relations, and prime time television.
The Radio Star is deceased, at least as it was once known. Video has taken the need for talent almost completely out of the equation, leaving the music world with plenty of eye candy but very little substance. The people want something good to listen to. This is a fact. If they happen to look nice, nobody is going to hold that against them, but to make it the focus of television shows and music videos has turned what was once an industry full of people you knew would stand the test of time to an industry that is full of people that the casual fan would rather watch on mute than hear a single note.
I have said it before and I will say it again - talent is the key. There is nothing you can do to change it. If you want yourself or someone else to get to the top of the mountain and stay there, they need talent. Stop looking and start listening. Take your remote control and turn the mute off and volume up and you will find yourself listening to those worth listening to. You may have to weed through hours upon hours of bad videos and horrible albums, but in the end it will be worth it. Close your eyes and open your ears, it is just that simple.
So there you have it, ladies and gents. Next week I shall take a look at the educational system of America and try to unravel the mystery behind the way we learn. Any questions or comments can be sent to me via the forums or through email at [email protected] Until next time, remember...every problem has a solution.
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