Lessons from the Annual Village Voice Critics Poll
-- The challenges of today's record business are on full display in the latest Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. The annual list compiles music critics' votes for the year's best releases. This year's list is topped by Tune-Yard's "WHOKILL" on 4AD. The top 10 has both obscure indie rock (Tune-Yards, Wild Flag, Shabazz Palace, Destroyer) and mainstream hip-hop (Jay-Z and Kanye West, Drake). The full list -- 1,734 titles -- offers a few lessons for the record business.
One takeaway is that attention spans are short. Scan the list and take note of familiar names that received some critical attention, but probably didn't show up on your radar in 2011. Take singer-songwriter Feist. Her latest album "Metals" (#59) has sold 118,000 albums and 54,000 tracks since its October release, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Not a terrible sum, but not a number that indicates her fans have stuck around since her breakout record, "The Reminder" (2007). Iron and Wine's "Kiss Each Other Clean" (Warner) came in at #237. "Kiss" has sold 116,000 albums and 75,000 tracks since its January release. Again, those aren't necessarily terrible numbers but they are relatively low compared to previous releases. Not too many years ago artists like Feist and Iron and Wine seemed poised for long-term, mainstream success. But that hasn't happened. Fans have moved on. Windows of opportunity are short.
Short attention spans are trouble for the middle-class artist. My analysis of SoundScan album sales figures have showed that mid-tier albums are worse off than the most and least popular albums. Once you get past the top 150 or so albums in a given year, you will see a decrease in market share. But you need to go way down the list, down to albums that sell a few thousand units in a year, to see gains in market share. In this great middle are working class musicians. They're not superstars -- unless they have a great touring career -- but they're not mired in the anonymity of the long tail, either. They have the same resources -- iTunes, Facebook, YouTube, email marketing -- as everybody else. And that's the problem. Digital tools haven't leveled the playing field, they've put a big sink hold in the middle of it.
That leads us to another takeaway from the Pazz & Jop album list: some marketing programs might be in need of an overhaul. Go ahead, scan the 1,734 releases that got at least one mention by voting critics. The size and breadth of this list are a warning to anybody marketing an artist or album to the trend-making group of consumers commonly referred to as tastemakers. Marketers tend to target tastemakers first and foremost in an effort to reach a tipping point. Reach enough tastemakers and popularity will spread like a virus. But there's a catch, of course. You may decide to target a particular group of music fans in the top 15 markets in the country, but everybody else is going after that same group, too.
The Pazz & Jop list is proof that tastemakers are inundated with releases. That's why Laura Veirs made the list at #900. Veirs got quite a bit of blog and mainstream attention a few years back when she was releasing music on Nonesuch. Her latest album, "Tumble Bee," was released on Raven Marching Band, the imprint that released some of her earlier works. It appears many fans of her fans have either moved on, too. "Tumble Bee" has sold just a few thousand units in two and a half months. Some of those fans might not even know the album was released. They are, after all, being inundated with new releases.
Klosterman Weighs In on Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll
-- Music critic and pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman weighs in on the winner of the Pazz & Jop poll, "WHOKILL" by Tune-Yards (aka Merrill Garbus). "I'm guessing this doesn't mean much to more than (maybe) 10,000 people in the entire country," he deadpanned. "WHOKILL" is an example of an album targeted to a frequently targeted group of consumers -- let's call them indie rock fans -- that managed to rise above the fray (that's a relative term, of course). The album was released on 4AD in the U.S. and has sold 51,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Not much, but the album's critical success has given Garbus valuable exposure.
Klosterman sees a short window of opportunity for Garbus. "[H]er real career starts now," he writes. "For the next 15 years, she must validate other people's belief in her own brilliance. There is no other option. Because if she doesn't, those same people will view her inability to become transcendent as hilarious. They will look back at w h o k i l l and talk about it like it's Cop Rock. And they'll technically be making fun of themselves, but she'll be the only person being criticized by name."
What Bill Would SOPA, PIPA Support?
-- If the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) aren't good solutions for dealing with foreign-based copyright infringement, what kind of bill might their critics support? Alternatives are in short supply, but Topspin Media CEO Ian Rogers has one. The short version: "A content registry where copyright holders can express the rules governing the use of their content and a legislative requirement sites dealing in media respect the rules expressed by the rights-holder in the registry."
The long version: Rogers believes a registry would better allow a range of digital service providers -- from subscription services to cyberlockers -- to know the exact terms required by any particular rights owner. This would ostensibly limit legitimate digital service providers' liability while highlighting the bad actors. "The upside to the industry as a whole is massive," Rogers writes. "Developers willing to play by the rules can integrate media into their apps (and pay for the rights to do so) simply, and a true digital marketplace for content governed by market forces, not gatekeepers of large catalogs of content."
Here are a few questions I have and you may have, too. First, who runs the registry? Would it be created and run by WIPO, who has been working with Jim Griffin on a similar project? Second, would a law still be required to make sure foreign websites properly used the registry or were blocked by US ISPs and search engines? A site that offers user-uploaded material can build a catalog of music without respecting rights holders' terms. Second, would everybody be better or worse off if rights owners offered fixed deal terms (as noted within the registry) rather than negotiating on a case-by-case basis? A good argument could be made that a registry would create a surge of revenue by reducing friction and spurring innovation. But negotiations would still be necessary to implement some innovative uses of copyrighted material, such as iTunes Match.