The Industry of Cool? - Pacific Standard

The Industry of Cool?

Blog chatter has helped flat-lining album sales, but does that chatter even matter?
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Face it: The new millennium has been a wild, mostly slumping, ride for the music industry.

Our favorite new (or back-from-the-dead) artists have recently displayed no shortage of ham-fisted ideas, outlandish stunts and embarrassing consumer product tie-ins in an attempt to cultivate awareness for their upcoming albums.

Naïve young indie bands, still valuing the buzz of the rapturous review (but the most likely to receive a scathing one), are instantaneously crowned or shredded by the unrelenting hype machine of hipster music havens such as Pitchfork Media, NME and Spin. Dinosaur rock acts, looking for one last large pay day, have eschewed labels entirely, opting for a bullet-proof (and review-proof) release strategy: partner with corporate juggernauts like Wal-Mart, Target and Starbucks.

Many bands have become relentless tour machines to bolster their label's cash flow, but still barely break even. Others desperately carpet bomb our e-mail boxes with newsletters, special invitations and requests to become a friend, fan or follower on a myriad of social-networking sites. And who can forget those RIAA lawsuits against single moms and grannies everywhere for downloading one too many Green Day songs? Now, as major labels wither away, there are infomercials.

Sure, a few highbrow artists stayed above the fray by giving their albums away. But they know that their legion of fans will eventually pony up — or even buy the deluxe $60+ box set.

What's a struggling artist to do? One study suggests, in terms of selling more albums, "blog chatter" matters.

The research, conducted by Vasant Dhar and Elaine A. Change of New York University, tracked a sample of 108 albums over a period of two months to determine what online media factors, if any, drove the sales of physical CDs. (Why CDs? Physical album sales still comprise the lion's share of music sold, and digital downloads are accounted primarily by singles — the way most listeners now consume music — rather than in albums.)

In what he described as a "painstaking" process, Dhar analyzed a diverse set of variables attached to each sample album to see whether they had significant impact on unit sales according to the Amazon.com daily sales ranking.

The variables investigated included traditional media factors, including the major label status of the artist and the quantity and quality of reviews posted by Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone and online media sources like Pitchfork Media and Pop Matters.

Interestingly, the study also tracked user-generated content across the Web to determine the effect that average consumers have on album sales. Using Technorati (a search engine specializing in blogs), researchers analyzed the number of legitimate consumer blog posts about an album across the Web, recorded the amount of user reviews and ratings on Amazon.com and totaled up the weekly number of friends accrued on the artist's official MySpace pages.

While some of the results are as expected (major label status does help — the industry isn't completely catatonic yet), others are quite surprising. Despite the hype surrounding the potential power of social-networking sites, the weekly addition of friends on MySpace (i.e. the online ghetto) was not a significant predictor on the future music sales.

It turns out the quantity of blog posts by humble consumers (or perhaps industry-embedded hipsters) rated alongside major label status and quantity of mainstream media reviews as the largest predictor of future album sales. The research suggests that when blog post activity reached more than 250 legitimate posts across the Web, album sales exploded — more than six times the average — regardless of whether an artist was associated with a major or minor label (Note: only the relative magnitudes, not the specific numbers cited, were included in the final report).

According to Dhar, the findings could be a harbinger of things to come, with user-generated content slowly eroding the influence of traditional media sources as the primary source of awareness, and therefore potential income, for artists.

It's obvious traditional media doesn't quite have the authority it used to. Not when — after Rolling Stone pans my favorite artist's new album — I can ignore the review, Google the title and, guaranteed, find some semi-influential blogger who (like me) is drooling over the "brilliant" music. Word-of-mouth, or perhaps just the sheer amount of dissenting or commending niche voices, will be king of this brave semi-new music world — what's left of it anyway.

But increasing the amount of blog chatter (through true word-of-mouth or artificial promotional means) won't do much when sales of the physical CD, in general, have already finished tanking, and labels are practically giving away digital copies in hopes fans turn out for the live tour. Simply put: It's just too easy to grab a couple songs off of a blog, cherry pick the lead single for 99 cents off iTunes and then forget about the B-sides on the rest of the album.

So, if artists can't sell their music, what else can they traffic in? The industry of cool?

Or perhaps, cool merchandise.

Maybe the RIAA could start handing out gold and platinum certifications for T-shirt sales — some bands still sell plenty of those.

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