We used to be about the music

Come on, guys. It’s all audience-data collection and media-platform convergence nowadays.

Extreme Makeover: G.G. Allin?

Extreme Makeover: G.G. Allin?

Been wondering what’s doing in the music biz as we turn over a new calendar page? Figure it’s mostly artist-unfriendly, bullet-pointed MBA-speak mumblings of grim, give-up-on-it-all news? You’re right!

In 2007, it became clear that the recording industry finally moved beyond denial and anger into the bargaining and depression phases of the grief cycle. Meanwhile, anybody still employed in the industry was left with visions of carnage unseen since the equally well-led charge of the Light Brigade.

Plummeting revenues from CD sales have not been replaced by digital sales, leaving the major labels scrambling to make up for the shortfall with other revenue streams.

“An exec told me that they have an artist selling so many ringtones, it’s the equivalent of selling two million records,” says Vagrant Records CEO Rich Egan. “Before long, they’ll be signing people who write good ringtones.”

With American Idol contestant Chris Daughtry’s (pictured right) self-titled CD following 2006’s High School Musical soundtrack as the year’s top-selling album, agents are already scouring the TV airwaves for more talent. It fits with the idea of labels re-branding themselves as artist-friendly “agencies.” To the artists, of course, that sounds like Jeffrey Dahmer promising he’ll pick up dinner from the butcher this time—so long as he gets his back royalties and a full accounting of his recoupables.

There’s bank to be made somewhere, right? Suits still want in on the music-making biz, as was made clear by Starbucks signing Paul McCartney. How long before the Gap signs Avril Lavigne? Anyway, in October, the ClearChannel concert-and-promotion spin-off Live Nation signed Madonna to a “360-degree deal,” which makes that corporate monolith something like an agent, scoring a percentage off the top of the Material MILF’s recording, publishing, touring, merchandising and other ancillary revenues (for a rumored $120 million over the next decade).

Free ’head.

Not everybody was reduced to a label slave, though. Radiohead (pictured left) struck a blow for iconoclastic, platinum-selling artists everywhere, or wherever they may be, by selling the new album, In Rainbows, directly from the band’s Web site for however much people thought it was worth.

What else? Well, in spring, Apple announced it had sold 100 million iPods; in summer it introduced the iPhone. If this doesn’t sound like a landmark now, consider that by the end of the year there’ll be 3 billion cell phones on the planet (versus just over a billion Internet users), and that last year in Japan, the tech-trend prognostication nation, 90 percent of digital music sales were made by mobile devices.

Yes, that basically sucks for radio, which already had reason to worry about the arrival of WiFi in the car. Internet radio stations such as Rhapsody and Pandora are now available on cell phones, which plug into the car stereo—although cell-coverage issues linger. Meanwhile Rhapsody recently migrated to TV as well, premiering on TiVo. Beware the coming media-platform convergence! Or, um, befriend it.

Minimally more deft than the recording industry, radio’s golden child, HD Radio, continued its molasses-slow rollout, with Volvo the first auto-maker to offer it standard in ’09 models.

And the year also witnessed Arbitron’s long-belated move to the Portable People Meter from the diary system, providing advertisers better, more accurate audience data. The difference between the PPM (which picks up whatever music’s playing around the wearer) and written diaries is like the difference between a John Deere riding mower and a powerless push mower. So, you can understand why many stations argued to delay the rollout beyond Houston and Philadelphia, right? What do you mean, no, you can’t? OK, well, you would understand if it were your ox being gored. Hey, at least radio’s bottom-liners can know that Internet advertising isn’t expected to surpass radio’s—until sometime next year, according to analysts.

Still, amid the change, there was some consistency. Berklee College of Music VP Dave Kusek notes that despite all the technological innovation the last two decades, “it hasn’t necessarily made the songs any better. It hasn’t increased the variety of music in terms of things that are unique.”

You can’t have everything.