High Fidelity: Popular yesterday

November 18, 2009

There are all sorts of insoluble life mysteries that I wish I could answer: How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? How is it that Seth Rogen has more money than I ever will? Would Obama be my friend if he weren’t so busy? Soon, we can all add another query to the list: “Who was the most successful musician in America during the ‘00s?”

In the past, experts would defer to Billboard Charts (which measures radio play and sales) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA, which just measures sales) to answer this question. However, the radical changes in the music industry since 2000 have compromised Billboard and the RIAA’s already shaky place as the authorities on ranking pop music.

For starters, no one seems to have a way to account for illegal downloading. Billboard essentially ignored digital music until recently, and the RIAA has been too busy suing its benefactors to figure out how to quantify its own ineffectiveness. As of yet, there may be no way to accurately determine the number of illegal downloads each year, much less the distribution of that quantity. It follows that ignoring such illegal activity also compromises the validity of the figures; non-sales data like radio-play remains included. Allegedly, Billboard now factors digital streams from Yahoo! Music and AOL into their charts, but it’s still unclear whether data from sites like YouTube hold any sway.

Besides, artists seem to be making more money from touring these days anyway, right? It’s true that 18 out of 20 of the world’s top grossing tours have occurred in the past 10 years, and a good portion of the artists on that list have managed to release albums this decade that charted at #1 on the Billboard 200. However, none of those albums are close to the best-sellers of the decade, and from that list only Madonna and Justin Timberlake released singles that made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Should we then believe that The Rolling Stones ‘05-’07 tour, which grossed $579 million worldwide, constitutes the highest level of success in the ‘00s? Or does it just mean that people with higher disposable incomes are willing to fork out $100 for General Admission at a Stones concert?

Simply put, it doesn’t make as much sense to point to the financial bottom line as the measure of a music artist’s success in the ‘00s. According to the L.A. Times’s Ultimate Top 10, which accounts for all streams of revenue to an artist (including records, concerts, films, and so on) *NSync made more in 2000 ($212.9 million) than any other artist made in a single year since then. The problem here is not just the fact that *NSync isn’t relevant anymore, it’s that they didn’t contribute much to pop culture during the decade, musically or otherwise (Justin Timberlake doesn’t count). Michael Jackson gave us “Thriller” in 1983. Madonna rolled around in a wedding dress in 1984. Kurt Cobain basically changed a generation in 1991 alone. These people offered great music and then some.

But what did the ‘00s give us? “Dick in a Box?” Crank That (Soulja Boy)? Wardrobe malfunctions? A universal reason to disdain Kanye West?

Wake me up when you have it sorted out.

Wake up Daniel at dcook@george townvoice.com.

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