The release this week of Guns N' Roses' new album, the 15-years-in-the-making magnum opus Chinese Democracy, may wind up marking the end of an era in pop music - when albums so big, by acts so popular, stop merely being music news and become genuine front-page stories. The music industry has changed so much in the last decade that it's harder than ever for a single musical act to break through on a G n' R-type level. The seismic shift hasn't been in what we listen to, but rather how we listen to it.
As recently as the '90s, we'd hear new music on our local commercial radio stations, or on MTV or one of its equivalents, and then go to our local record stores and buy it. But two of this holiday season's biggest new releases aren't even available in traditional record stores - Chinese Democracy is only for sale at Best Buy outlets, while AC/DC's Black Ice is a Wal-Mart exclusive. If you don't want to leave the house, you can always order the CDs online or download them straight to your hard drive. And with the plethora of Internet and satellite radio stations, plus the blogs and websites where many fans now hear new music, these new records can't saturate the airwaves and our eardrums the way "Sweet Child O' Mine" and "You Shook Me All Night Long" once did.
They probably won't sell in late 20th century-type numbers, either. According to SoundScan, which tracks music sales, Billboard magazine's top 200 best-selling albums accounted for a smaller percentage of total music sales in 2007 than any year on record, a trend that looks to continue this year.
In the words of Marvin Gaye, what's going on?
The twin technological innovations of downloading and Internet/satellite radio enable people who listen to music to have a greater choice of what to listen to than ever before. They let the artists who make music reach their target audience more effectively and cheaply than ever before. And they let businesspeople who sell music divide music buyers into ever-smaller demographic slices. And so, instead of a generation being brought together by a blockbuster, groundbreaking album like Thriller or Nevermind, we're now united by our ubiquitous white iPod earbuds - even if we're all listening to different music.
In this new digital world of unlimited possibilities, it seems almost impossible for a single artist to impact an audience beyond its niche. The soundtrack to Disney's High School Musical was the biggest-selling album of 2006, but if you're not a teen or the parent of one, odds are you haven't even heard a single song from it. Earlier this year, the rapper Lil Wayne became the first artist in three years to sell a million copies of a CD/download in a single week, but his massive success barely registered with people who aren't into the latest hip-hop releases.
Records like "Rock Around The Clock" or Sgt. Pepper or Thriller or Nevermind are cultural touchstones -- they've become greater than the sum of their songs and have shaped not just individual lives, but entire generations. Would the Sixties be the sixties without the Beatles? Would teen culture as we know it exist without Elvis? And can any record, no matter how brilliant, have a similar impact today? Somehow, I don't think so.
In recent years, the ability of pop music to define an era seems diminished. Maybe it's the breakdown of the industry's traditional machinery; maybe it's just that American Idol isn't the right breeding ground for a pop revolution. But that feeling of music being something larger than our own personal tastes is long gone. Songs like "Umbrella" or "Get Low" may be part of the soundtrack of a generation, but they're not going to change the plot of the movie.
The next Beatles or Michael Jackson or Nirvana may be toiling away in anonymity on a MySpace page somewhere, but the chance they'll be heard by an audience commensurate with their talent has grown slimmer. For all the talk of the "level playing field" of the music biz, and for all the choices today's music listener has, that's a big loss.