Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Response: Billboard: Breaking Records Yesterday and Today -- "How Will I Know"?

Watching the feed on Twitter today, the Denver Post put out this article about the success for relative newcomer, Adele, and her second (multiple Grammy winning) album, "21":  The short blurb reads:

NEW YORK (AP) — Adele’s album “21″ has spent 21 weeks atop Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart — and its 21st week is the biggest one yet.   Nielsen SoundScan said Tuesday her sophomore album sold 730,000 copies the week after her Grammy Awards sweep. It’s the longest stint for a woman at the top of Billboard’s album chart, displacing Whitney Houston’s “The Bodyguard.” It’s also now sold 7.3 million copies.

I like Adele and I think she's got a great future ahead of her.  She's got real soul, good lyrics, songwriting with feeling, all of the things that make a good mix of what will reach people for the long-term. But that's not what bothered me about this headline, as I would never seek to take anything away from her.  What bothered me was the inequal standard of "breaking records" mentioned by Billboard Magazine. Granted, Adele has swept the Grammies and mega-sold albums; these are amazing achievements.  But one caveat reminds us that she's doing it in the Internet Age! 

Think about when Whitney first hit the scene in the mid-1980s.  Back then, we were spinning vinyl records and tapes.  There were no CDs yet, and there definitely was no Internet.  There were no digital downloads, no mp3s, no iPods, no smartphones, no iPads.  No Facebook.  No Twitter.   No YouTube.  No Pandora.  There was a record company's A&R department, their marketing, their producers, their studio, their equipment, and their distribution channels.  There was the local radio station that could choose whether or not to spin the latest releases and how often. There was only MTV, only about 4 years old at that time, the biggest way that artists could break through.  And there were local record stores.  If you were fortunate to hear the record on the radio in your area, you jumped into your car (or had Mom take you) and headed to your indie record shop or the Mall and picked it up for way too much money (I remember it was about $8.99 for an album).  Everything was very localized for the listener.

In the Information Age, all of this sounds delightfully quaint, but this was the world that Whitney took by storm by 1985.  In the U.S., the Walkman had freshly hit the scene to allow people to take her tapes along with them everywhere; the larger "boom box" was the only other thing out there. That was the state of musical portability. 

But here's the most important point: Whitney became an international sensation, both in the U.S. but also in countries with less media accessibility than they have today.  Remember, in 1985, the Berlin Wall was still up and dividing Germany.  Russia was still in a Cold War with the United States, still Communist, and therefore heavily restricting media that flowed into the country.  There were countries known as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the U.S.S.R. In the middle of this, Whitney managed to hit globally and against all odds - an African-American female with one of the most powerful and delightful voices the world had ever known.  She broke down these barriers and the music persevered. 

Therefore, it's not very surprising that Adele today was able to break Whitney's record for The Bodyguard:  she's a great artist and hopefully will continue to make great music!  However, when Billboard talks about breaking records, let's be sure to compare apples and oranges: timeframes, prices, and most of all, musical accessibility to worldwide listeners.  The world has changed in so many ways since Whitney became a star.  Few can argue that it's just easier to get a hold of music on the Internet and by standards, at $.99 a track on iTunes, it's cheaper.  In the 1980s, a 45 RPM single used to cost me about $3.00 - even with two songs on it (A and B sides) that's way still more expensive than today's iTunes pricing, especially when accounting for inflation. 

A click of a mouse can buy you the newest releases in seconds, and I am sure this is part of Adele's amazing viral success.  She has set the bar even higher for record-breaking releases in a short amount of time.  But please remember, my caution is not about Adele the musician - she is great!  It is about being fair when talking about musical accessibility to listeners and comparable track pricing, and the two vocalists started in very different times in history to suffer a generically whitewashed comparison today.  It is not about bashing Adele, but rather preserving the fact that Whitney built the same house with fewer tools.

Best always,
Kathryn Ballard Shut
TIMKAT Entertainment
Denver, CO, USA

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