All of the “billions lost” post Napster can all be tracked back to the SoundScan era. According to Wikipedia, on May 25, 1991, Billboard started to use SoundScan data to work out the Billboard 200 Top Albums. Finally the music industry had a proper sales metric to gauge what was popular.
Prior to the SoundScan era, the charts were formulated by an honesty system from every record shop in the land. This meant that the manager of the record store had the power to decide what was popular. So the record labels swooped in and started corrupting the process.
But when it all went to SoundScan data, the record labels saw a lot of people were buying metal, rock and country than the old corrupted honesty system claimed.
Metallica had a large audience before the “Black” album came out, however their “sales” just didn’t match the concert attendances. Why would a record store manager tell Billboard that a band who had no MTV presence was moving product out especially when the same record store manager is encouraged by record label executives to report something different.
And like everything else in music, the record labels were dragged kicking and screaming into the new SoundScan era. SoundScan actually presented their proposal to the record labels in 1990 and of course the labels rejected their proposal. The MP3 technology was also presented to the record labels once upon a time before Napster and it was also rejected. But when Billboard made the deal with Soundscan a year later, the labels had no choice but to comply, although with much complaining. Gone was the “fixing” of the system by record label executives and “in” was the “people power” of the system, which put the careers of artists in the hands of consumers.
If this sounds familiar, Steve Jobs and Apple did the exact same thing to the record labels with the iTunes store.
Suddenly, the labels and the press had no idea what was happening.
In the first month of the SoundScan era, Skid Row’s “Slave To The Grind” skyrocketed to number 1. In the space of two months, it was purchased over a million times. Trackable purchases, not inflated ones based on a store manager opinion.
For comparison, the self-titled debut album was listed to have sold “3 million” records under the good old honesty system. Really.
And popularity is a monolith that dominates. If the album is selling and doing well, more people will turn to it. And in the internet era, this is so true. The chaos era means we return to what we know. Sure, we might listen to some obscure acts or certain scenes. Like for me, Swedish Hard/Heavy Rock has me hooked at this point in time. But that’s via my choice and not by some flash marketing campaign or by some feature in a magazine.
And the reason those acts are not getting rich is because just a few people are. It’s always been that the one percent of acts that become global underpin the whole industry. And SoundScan showed the recording industry just how global Metallica really is.
“Enter Sandman” comes out two weeks before the album release and it gets added to radio. Metallica have a listening party in Madison Square Garden. The song and the pending album release is building a buzz like never before. MTV takes notice and suddenly mainstream radio stations that play “pop” music have the single in rotation. The album comes out and it debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Suddenly, the “Black” album is selling by the hundreds of thousands. It’s trackable. And then, the back catalogue of Metallica started selling. Normal rock music lovers couldn’t avoid it. Pop fans couldn’t avoid it. Skater fans couldn’t avoid it. Suddenly fans of all genres are embracing Metallica.
I recently had a look at the recent RIAA certifications and it more or less confirms we are living in a “singles” world.
Check out all of the certifications that Shinedown received recently.
There is a platinum certification for “Simple Man”, a song released in 2004. This is what music is about. The longevity. 12 years later, people are still listening to the song and are still purchasing it. However, the record labels and a lot of misguided artists believe it’s about the instant payday. It’s not.
Next up is a Platinum certification for “The Sound Of Madness” single. Again, it’s been a long time between certifications but this song is a monster and as classic as anything from the classic rock era. Like “Simple Man” before, it’s about the longevity. 7 years later, it’s still listened to and it has close to 26 million streams on Spotify.
It’s just a matter of time before “Call Me” gets a certification and it was never even released as a single, however it has been streamed close to 33 million times on Spotify.
Then you have a few Gold certifications for the songs “Bully”, “The Crow And The Butterfly” and “Diamond Eyes”. “Bully” is a favourite of mine. It’s message is powerful.
Speaking of singles, Disturbed is killing it on the back of “The Sound Of Silence” and their album is moving units on the backs of their cover.
And Muse are now moving into album certification territory on the backs of some very large singles. “Absolution” gets a platinum gong, 12 years after it was released. Again, the longevity is more important than the payday.
So again, on the strength of a few songs here and there, artists are seeing an interest in their back catalogue. It happened to Metallica with “Enter Sandman”. It’s happening to Disturbed with “The Sound Of Silence”. It’s continually happening to Muse and Shinedown. This is music and music is for the lifers.