Like a bored cross-country driver scanning the radio for one good song, the American music industry is searching for a fresh new musical trend. The $12 billion business, which had been growing at a 10%-to-12% annual clip in recent years, has expanded only 2% so far in 1996, a development that falls somewhere between a worrisome lull and a full-blown slump.
The prime suspect is alternative rock, a genre that fueled a good deal of the industry's growth at the beginning of this decade but now, as rock's dominant genre, is sounding a bit cranky and old as it turns up in car commercials, movie sound tracks and award shows--not a good thing for a form supposedly powered by energy and youth and anger. The music started out as an antidote to the processed pop of the '80s; instead of sex and spandex, alternative rock was supposed to be about passion and honesty, about taking the focus off performers' gluteal muscles and putting it back on the music.
But maybe that's not always a good idea. This year R.E.M., Pearl Jam and Nirvana, three of the genre's biggest and most critically acclaimed bands, all released new albums with comparatively little fanfare--and all three albums sold poorly, relative to the huge hits these groups have scored in the past. The chart slippage of these and other megagroups, coupled with the sad state of the industry in general, has set music executives abuzz--about the declining aesthetics of alternative rock, about what the next Next Big Thing will be, and especially about the tenuous status of their jobs (several labels, including Atlantic, have had staff cutbacks recently; and three music chains, Wherehouse Entertainment, Camelot Music and Peaches Entertainment, have filed for bankruptcy protection in the past 18 months).
In another signal that alternative rock is facing rocky days ahead, MTV plans this month to start playing less alternative rock and to program more of other genres, including electronic dance music and traditional pop, which could spell trouble for bands like the Presidents of the United States of America that have thrived on video exposure. "What MTV does is both lead and reflect what's going on out there," says MTV programming director Andy Schuon. Some observers partly blame the channel's haste to introduce new acts for the current industry downturn. "MTV often breaks acts too quickly," says a lawyer for several well-known pop acts. "As a result, bands don't have the fan base they would normally develop by touring--they don't have a chance to build an audience. MTV also burns out its acts. They take alternative bands and play them to death." Example: semialternative pop-folk singer Sheryl Crow. Videos from her first album, Tuesday Night Music Club, were as inescapable as death, taxes and junk mail on AOL. By the time she released her new album, Sheryl Crow, a lot of people seemed sick of her--sales of her sophomore album have been underwhelming. And it hasn't helped matters that the album's contents are about as inventive as its title.