"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Politics News
From the cradle to the grave: That’s how serious baby boomers are about hearing the hits. The members of this influential demographic group, the last of whom grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, now have kids of their own (even as they refuse to excuse themselves from the pop-culture table) — and are rewriting the rules of record sales.
According to a recently released annual consumer profile conducted by the Recording Industry Association of America, shoppers ages 45 and up purchased 25 percent of all music last year, up a whopping 38 percent in a single year — easily the largest jump of any age group.
As prosperous baby boomers grow older, so too does the age of the average music consumer — a surprise perhaps for those who think Backstreet Boys fans fuel the music business. “The assumption that music is the domain of 12-to-24-year-olds is wildly inaccurate,” says Mike Shallett, chief operating officer of SoundScan, which tracks music sales.
Ten years ago shoppers over age 35 purchased just 29 percent of records, according to the RIAA. By 1999 that number had jumped to 44 percent, good for $6 billion worth of music sales.
For the mainstream music business that’s a godsend. “Twenty years ago, adults meant nothing to the music business,” says John Sykes, president of VH1, the music video channel that caters to 30-plus fans. “This generation was raised with incredible passion for music,” he adds. “Their parents had five kids and threw out the stereo. But [these people] are getting married, upgrading their stereo and putting CD players in the car. They want to know what’s going on musically, and don’t want to end up in classic-rock hell.”
The parents-as-rockers phenomenon is mostly a function of demographics and nostalgia. According to U.S. Census projections, the two most populous age groups in America are 35-to-39-year-olds and 40-to-44-year-olds. Each of these boomer wedges boasts 22 million members.
Look beyond the Kid Rocks and Britney Spears of the charts, and you’ll spot loads of platinum acts who depend on this mortgage-paying collective: Macy Gray, Toni Braxton, Matchbox 20, Dixie Chicks, Sting, Faith Hill, Buena Vista Social Club, Sarah McLachlan, Santana and Shania Twain, among others.
Also fueling the music spending spree is the fact that boomers have new retail outlets that cater to their tastes, such as Borders Books and Music and Barnes & Noble. The bookstores have quickly snatched up nearly $700 million in music sales annually. “The resurgence among those 35-plus and 45 is mostly due to better places for them to go to shop for music, like Borders,” says Ken Cosimano, vice president of multimedia merchandising for Borders’ 312 stores. “They were uncomfortable shopping in the mall and music superstore environment. We lured them back into the marketplace.” (The same trend seems to hold online, where book giant Amazon.com’s current bestselling CDs include new releases by VH1 players k.d. lang, Sting, Don Henley and Siniad O’Connor.)
Yet despite this unique chance to market to a wave of music-buying adults who, according to one recent survey, buy an average of 20 CDs each every year, sales indicators suggest these 30-, 40- and even 50-something parents remain cool to jazz and classical.
The RIAA’s latest report indicates that market share for classical music was up just a tick in 1999, to 3.5 percent from the previous year’s 3.3 percent, while jazz rebounded, climbing from a dismal 1.9 percent in 1998 to a respectable 3 percent in 1999. (In 1990, jazz hit a high of 4.8 percent.) Yet at a time of runaway music sales among those age 45 and older — mellowing music fans who presumably would embrace more soothing sounds — shouldn’t jazz and classical be experiencing a renaissance, rather than just hanging on? The answer may simply be that boomers are wed to the R&B and rock they grew up on and are in no hurry to browse the aisles in search of Kronos Quartet or Steve Tyrell.
“Those 45-plus shoppers, they’re still buying pop records,” reports Joe Kvidera, manager of a Tower Records shop in Chicago. “People who grew up with the Rolling Stones can still buy Rolling Stones albums because they keep putting them out, or Black Crowes records, which sound just like the Rolling Stones.”
Which could spell real trouble for the jazz and classical world.
In May, BMG Entertainment folded its legendary classical label, RCA Victor, along with its longtime jazz label, BMG Classics — home to Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins recordings — into an umbrella label called RCA Music Group. The move didn’t simply cost nearly 100 employees, and scores of artists, their jobs. It also sent the message that some major labels already view jazz and classical as rearview-mirror commodities.
“Jazz as some of us know it and love it won’t be played out on the major-label level anymore,” predicts one record company V.P. “The economics have made it impossible for these big companies to give a shit anymore. It’s totally a question of commerce. BMG is getting out of the front-line business and zeroing in on catalog, and that’s where most of the majors are going.” The main problem? “Both are genres living off their old stuff,” says Kvidera.
Sure, mainstream shoppers make occasional exceptions to the rule. Ubiquitous Italian pop-opera singer Andrea Bocelli has sold millions of records in recent years. And thanks to her cross-promotion with Ford Motor Co., teenage Welsh soprano Charlotte Church has gone platinum with her American debut, “Voice of an Angel.”
On the jazz side, a rare million-dollar marketing campaign has helped sultry blond vocalist and pianist Diana Krall dominate Billboard’s No. 1 jazz spot for 43 weeks running with her latest, “When I Look in Your Eyes.” (The Verve CD even managed to peak on the pop charts at No. 59.) But has Krall’s crossover stardom created more jazz fans? No, says Tom Evered, G.M. and senior vice president for Verve competitor Blue Note. “Chances are, if they like Diana Krall they go buy the Diana Krall record. It’s a personality thing, as opposed to an art form.”
The biggest hurdle seems to be education. “Acquired interests like jazz and classical — consumers don’t know how to enter those genres. They’re confusing,” explains Joe Rapolla, vice president of consumer information and label marketing at Universal Music Group.
The commercial woes of jazz and classical stem from the same three R’s: retail, radio and reissues. Pressed for floor space and anxious to sell just the hits, most music retailers — excluding the book chains — have cut back or simply eliminated their jazz and classical sections. “The mall stores are all carrying less jazz, and the mass merchants like Wal-Mart, Target and Circuit City don’t carry any,” reports Evered.
Not a good sign considering that more and more shoppers buy music at the mass merchants. According to the RIAA’s survey, 45 percent of consumers last bought CDs at “record stores” (down from 70 percent in 1990), while 38 percent (up twofold since 1990) bought CDs at “other stores,” such as Target and Wal-Mart.
The fact is, neither jazz nor classical can compete in the mainstream sales game. For instance, a recent top-five entry on Billboard’s Top Jazz Albums chart, guitarist Charlie Hunter’s self-titled release, sold 900 copies in one week, according to SoundScan. By comparison, a top-five entry on Billboard’s overall album chart, rapper Busta Rhymes’ “Anarchy,” sold 167,000 copies in one week.
Worse, some of today’s bestselling jazz titles are quickie compilations (“Jazz From When You’re Alone”; “Jazz for Peaceful Moments”) that sell for just $7 or $8. The result, says one major-label jazz V.P.: “We don’t have a prayer competing in the retail section. We’re the lowest rung on the ladder. We mean nothing to them.”
The same disappearing floor act is evident on the classical side. “It’s abysmal,” says Marc Offenbach, vice president of sales for Sony Classical. “There are 25,000 music stores in the U.S., and maybe 3,000 carry classical music. That’s down from 9,000 stores just five or 10 years ago.”
The picture is equally bleak on commercial radio, where traditional jazz outlets are essentially extinct. What are left are smooth jazz stations, offering up lots of light, George Benson and Dave Koz at-work listening pleasure. “It’s really instrumental pop music that’s called jazz, with the term ‘jazz’ merely used as a marketing ploy. It all sounds like cookie-cutter stuff,” complains one label exec.
Nonetheless, the format enjoyed a nice ride during the ’90s, peaking in 1997 with 92 stations nationwide, according to the M Street Journal, which tracks radio formats. Then, when ownership restrictions were eased, consolidation swept across the radio spectrum, with broadcast conglomerates buying up hundreds of stations and looking for the surest way to pay back their Wall Street debt. The result since 1997 has been 50 more Top-40 stations, 102 more adult contemporary stations, 74 more classic-rock stations, 36 more sports-talk stations and 20 fewer jazz stations.
Since so few commercial classical stations remain (they make up less than 0.4 percent of all AM and FM for-profit outlets), it’s hard to say if the format ever peaked. But certainly there are fewer interested broadcasters. The reason is simple: advertising. Despite the fact that classical stations often boast a more educated and affluent (albeit smaller) audience, they have a dreadful time converting their audience into ad revenue. According to Duncan’s America Radio Report, the format even trails R&B when it comes to getting its fair share of ad dollars in a market. (Jazz, it tuns out, doesn’t do much better than classical in this regard.)
There are exceptions among classical radio stations. Robust WGMS in Washington, D.C., consistently ranks among the market’s top five most-listened-to stations, and does it with a populist touch. “A hardcore classical fan would say ours is a dumbed-down classical product. But that person can’t be our target,” explains station president Kari Johnson Winston. “Our goal is to be a mass-appeal radio station. We play the hits.”
Meanwhile, WGMS’s sister classical station, KDFC in San Francisco, hit No. 2 in that market not long ago. Both are owned by Bonneville International, which is telling. “It’s not a public company, so they don’t have to show ungodly gains to Wall Street,” says Robert Unmacht, editor of the M Street Journal.
Another problem for jazz and classical as they search for economic meaning among hit-hungry major labels is that they’re coming off a miniboom courtesy of the CD’s arrival in the mid-’80s. At a time when pop titles were scarce, both classical and jazz releases were plentiful as labels emptied their vaults — and early CD adopters ate them up. “In those days, people came in and they knew nothing about classical music or jazz, but wanted digital recordings with a dynamic range so they could test their speakers,” remembers Tower’s Kvidera.
With nothing but packaging costs to cover, reissues became label favorites. Look at the 1959 Miles Davis jazz classic “Kind of Blue,” reissued — yet again — by Columbia in 1997. Three years later, the title still sells 5,000 copies each week — blockbuster numbers for jazz. And it recently passed the 1.5 million mark.
Talk about an evergreen.
There are only a handful of “Kind of Blue’s” in the jazz and classical vaults. Still, hooked on the idea, record companies couldn’t stop churning out remastered CDs. “They created this reissue Frankenstein monster,” says one label player.
Then two things happened: First, most of those early adopters stopped rebuilding their CD libraries with the classics. “How many different sets of Mozart can you have?” asks Borders’ Cosimano. “They need new stars.”
Second, the flood of reissued works now takes money out of the mouths of young classical and jazz acts looking for a break. “Say some guy has recreational dough in [his] pocket — he’s sort of interested in jazz and he’s confronted at the store with a Thelonious Monk reissue vs. some new record from a kid from the Bay Area. It’s a no-brainer where he’s going to spend his money,” says a jazz industry veteran, who, like many others, is trying to keep his sense of humor while battling the hostile marketplace. “The joke we tell is, ‘Jazz is not dead. It’s just over.’”
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."More Eric Boehlert.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)