The major labels continue to watch in horror as sales of full-length CDs decrease on a quarterly basis, and digital downloading of single tracks from any number of Web sites keeps picking up steam. That wouldn’t be a problem if singles themselves hadn’t evolved into loss leaders years ago: sell consumers on the artist by pushing the single on radio and in stores and, if all went well, the higher-priced album from whence the single came would start bringing in some major cake. Unfortunately, that model was based on an imbalance that has existed for most of the rock/pop era: artists had the talent, the charisma, and other skills, but the labels were the ones with the money — the large amounts of capital needed to rent expensive recording studios, press hundreds of thousands of albums (vinyl, cassette, CD, whatever), and then ship those “units” to stores and warehouses all over the country and the world. But as we’ve all seen in this new digital millennium, it no longer takes much money to record a song or an album or any random number of tunes in home studios; there’s no reason to press those songs into CDs or any other format when iTunes is happy to sell indie product and MySpace provides an open forum for distribution of downloads or streaming audio. And if there’s nothing to press, there’s no need to truck hundreds of thousands of units to warehouses across the country. To say it’s put major labels at a major disadvantage is a major understatement.
This year’s poll still has vestiges of the old way, so to speak. Blockbuster bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tool still fit the major-label model because they are such large operations, generating millions of dollars and touring huge venues. That takes a lot of manpower, a lot of planning, and a huge team of specialists to maintain, both on the road and off. We’ve certainly reached a point where artists at that level can build organizations of their own to market and distribute their releases, put up money for touring, and help coordinate the myriad facets of their business, like merchandizing and scheduling interviews. But major labels already have that sort of infrastructure in place. So you can hardly blame our Best Act this year, the Chili Peppers, or our Best Hard Rock Act, Tool, for taking advantage of those few benefits a major label has to offer a band who grew to fame inside the major-label system.
But all you have to do is look to our comeback king, Prince, who just managed to take Best R&B Act out of Gnarls Barkley’s hands, for an artist who came up under the old major-label system but has been very vocal about his dissatisfaction with its machinations and has even worked outside it, using his own internal Paisley Park organization. Or, if the music business is looking for comfort in the storm of bad news, there’s always a My Chemical Romance or Fall Out Boy — artists modeled on already successful bands who are just looking for that big major-label payoff. They may have to sell a portion of their souls to sign on the dotted line, but if the timing’s right, a My Chemical Romance can end up lodged at the top of the charts with a disc that in our poll took the honors for Best Album. If they’re lucky they may even get a career out of it. Or, like Blink-182, perhaps they’ll just fade off into the digital sunset.