Pop Shined in 2010, But All Formats Face Changes

In its year-end wrap, Billboard (12/18/10) proclaims 2010 The Great Pop Boom noting that pop’s percentage of the Top 10 songs on the Hot 100 chart had soared to 74% compared with just 28% in 2005. Popsters such as Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Justin Bieber and Black Eyed Peas were headline grabbers. Nashville’s Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum also enjoyed high enough levels of sales, press, airplay and chart positions on the Hot 100 to qualify them as pop sensations, too. One thing the pop acts have in common is their highly evolved communication skills designed to keep them front and center in the public’s mind.

Besides the pop success, it was also a year in which some basic industry assumptions were trampled. The touring industry, thought to be bulletproof, was derailed by the weak economy and digital track sales growth, long touted as the savior of falling album sales, slowed to a crawl.

For example, Live Nation and Ticketmaster merged to become Live Nation Entertainment, but sagging ticket sales and tour cancellations caused its stock to drop 50% from April through mid-August. U.S. digital track sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan set an all time record at 1.172 billion sold, but only increased 1% over 2009. The tracks increase was particularly disappointing when contrasted with total album sales which dipped 12.7%.

Train frontman Pat Monahan told Billboard that radio’s role in exposing pop music is also changing. “My manager has a great baseball analogy,” Monahan says. “He said that radio used to be the starting pitcher, and now it’s the closer. You’d better have all your other stuff dialed in—your online fan base, your touring—if you think radio is going to come together.”

Billboard writer Monica Herrera cleverly offers several explanations for the pop-ularity of music-driven TV show, Glee. “A common explanation for the appeal of Glee is its constant championing of earnestness over cynicism,” she says, “coupled with the fact that the cast consists of diverse, relatively unknown faces. It’s no coincidence that some of the year’s most embraced talents, from Bieber to Susan Boyle to Greyson Chance, have equally wholesome back stories, as viral sensations who constantly stay on message about their remarkable rise to fame. Even the always-costumed Gaga talks often of her pre-fame days, and a quick Google search lets fans see her in full struggling artist glory. Horatio Algers for the YouTube age, these new pop stars are the realization of a dream that perhaps resonates more than ever for a logged-on, recession-addled public.”

Analysis: If pop exploded in 2010, what format will shine in 2011? One thing is sure, the challenges are already stacking up. All formats will face unresolved retail sales, radio and touring issues.

In 2010 radio groups got serious about extending their reach beyond the terrestrial towers and using online strategies such as mobile phone apps and streaming. But pure-play Internet radio alternatives such as Pandora were also stretching. Pandora now claims over 65 million users and during 2011 will interface with Toyota, BMW and Ford automobiles. Free and paid subscription services like Spotify, set to finally launch in the U.S. this year, are also likely to cut into time spent listening to traditional signals. Eventually all Internet channels will find a way to reach into the coveted auto dashboard, where so much of radio listening takes place and terrestrial radio will have to evolve to meet these challenges.

The outlook for retail sales is equally complex. Almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, as physical sales continue to droop (48 million fewer albums in 2010), retailers respond by shrinking music shelf space. As Nashville marketers grapple with CD format extending ideas such as six or eight track albums, opportunities to enjoy streaming music are growing exponentially. Looming larger each year is the question—Do consumers really need to purchase music anymore? Combine a myriad of channels such as Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, Last.FM, Yahoo and Rhapsody with improved 4G mobile wireless and one gets an on-demand, 24/7, instant-access media world where one is always on the grid.

Pop music may continue to rule in 2011, but all formats are finding that music revenue streams and the pathways along which those dollars flow, are rapidly changing.

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David M. Ross has been covering Nashville's music industry for over 25 years. [email protected]

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