100 & Single: The R&B/Hip-Hop Factor In The Music Business's Endless Slump

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Usher's Looking 4 Myself, Frank Ocean's Channel Orange, and Chris Brown's wingdinged-out Fortune.
Here are a few recent data points from chart bible Billboard and data provider Nielsen Soundscan as we move into the second half of 2012:

• In its midyear music-industry report card, Soundscan reports a return to the dismal album sales climate; year-to-date disc sales are off 3.2% from the same period in 2011. Last year saw the first annual rise in sales in nearly a decade, with albums eking out a 1.4% gain in 2011 over 2010. In the first six months of 2012, only one album sold more than a million copies, and it didn't come out this year: Adele's 21. Among the Top Five best-sellers for the year so far are a pair of stalwart acts from the 1980s: Lionel Richie, who on Tuskegee reupholstered his old hits as country songs and wound up with the year's second-best seller to date (912,000 copies); and Whitney Houston, who passed away in February, fueling sales for her 2000 disc The Greatest Hits which is now the year's fourth-best seller (818,000 copies).

• On the current album chart, Chris Brown debuts atop the Billboard 200 album chart with Fortune, the sequel to his petulantly titled 2011 smash F.A.M.E. (Forgiving All My Enemies). That prior album also debuted at No. 1, in April 2011, with first-week sales of 270,000 copies. The 2012 followup disc debuts in the penthouse with just under half that total, 134,000 copies.

• Just last week, Usher's 2004 megasmash album Confessions crossed 10 million in lifetime sales. Billboard reports that it's the first album to reach the diamond-sales mark since Eminem's 2002 album The Eminem Show, which quietly crossed the line last October. That makes the eight-year-old Confessions the newest album to move 10 million. An eye-popping 1.1 million of those copies were sold way back in the album's debut week, in March 2004, when Usher's hit "Yeah!" was riding high. The last few hundred copies that sold this summer were probably inspired by a flurry of promotional activity surrounding Usher's latest album, Looking 4 Myself. That disc, his seventh studio album and his fourth straight to debut at No. 1, arrived three weeks ago with first-week sales of just 128,000.

Conclusions? Well, for one thing, music sales are a bit like the U.S. unemployment rate: Just when you think we've pulled through the worst of it, the stagnation sets in again. That story cuts across all artists (who aren't Adele) and all musical genres.

But a lot of media outlets over the past week have homed in on the weak sales by Usher's and Brown's latest albums and noted that R&B music, in particular, seems to be in a slump.

I would go further than that: Black music, in its various forms, is in a commercial funk—and it's even worse than those album sales figures indicate. More than three years after Top 40 radio took a hard right toward dance-pop, urban music has been left to founder. We'd all be better off if it snapped out of its depression.

To appreciate what an aberration the current state of popular black music is, it's worth walking through a few decades of chart history.


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10 comments
Jen
Jen

Usher's new album is on sale for Amazon's Summer Deals. No excuse as to why you don't have it now!  http://amzn.to/LMMKpX

PaulCantor
PaulCantor

Really enjoyed this breakdown. One thing I think you're seeing with Chris Brown and Usher, this time around, is that neither artist really has a smash record. They were lucky on their last LPs, because they both had songs that worked at top 40 radio and on urban radio. So they were both seemingly inescapable. Certainly Usher, he caught that wave of electronic music as it was just beginning to work its way into pop on a large scale, with "DJ Got Us Fallin In Love," and Chris had "Yea 3x." These songs were inescapable. They're still on top 40 stations now. But they also had songs on the urban side as well. It was a nice mix, and it allowed both artists to tap into two audiences. Now, neither of them have songs out that are any good. Usher's had a single out for months, I still couldn't tell you what it's called. It plays on the radio, but you can tell it's a programming move. Nobody likes it. A new Chris Brown song leaks on the internet every 3 days. I was surprised he even had an album dropping. Just seemed to come out of nowhere. The other thing is, on the urban radio side, mixshow has taken over and destroyed playlists. With respect to a station like Hot 97, for example, I couldn't even begin to tell you when they have air time that ISN'T mixshow. The whole thing just seems like a mixshow.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

This is a good question, Johnsomer. When I was doing the research into R&B-to-pop crossover for this piece, the other period I turned up in my research where crossover was at its lightest was in the very early '80s just before Michael Jackson and Prince broke wide (so, 1980–82, roughly). During that period, R&B radio was very much its own thing. Before Jackson broke (obviously Off the Wall had done very well, but compared with Thriller it wasn't exceptional), about the biggest star in black music was Rick James, who didn't make the Top 10 of the Hot 100 at all, not even with "Superfreak." I actually love this period of R&B (acts like Raydio, Zapp and Patrice Rushen), but it feels very separate from what was going on in mainstream rock (REO Speedwagon, Asia) and pop (Rick Springfield, the Go-Go's) at the time. After Jackson's big breakthrough, black acts went deeper into new wave–style sounds and sought Top 40 crossover: think mid-'80s acts like Ready for the World and Billy Ocean. But to come back to the argument of my piece, even during this period, you didn't have to completely alienate the core R&B radio audience to cross over—not the way, say, Usher these days feels the need to record a "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love" or "Scream" for pop radio at the expense of his home-base audience; meanwhile, his slow-jam single "Climax" tops the R&B list but doesn't break the Top 10 at pop radio. Everything's much more bifurcated now.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

About as much as Nielsen matters for TV ratings—i.e., as long as the medium being measured (TV in the case of the Nielsens, music in the case of Billboard/Soundscan) matters, measuring it properly will matter. If what you're implying is that popular music itself is less important in the context of an array of wider media choices ranging from video games to social media to podcasts, then sure...but I'm not sure how that's relevant to the specific issues on offer here.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

And for "reductive," you should read "about as well-informed as the drunken dudes who burned disco records in Comiskey Park in 1979 and thought they were killing dance music forever."

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

I want to make sure I'm hearing you right: You're saying that hip-hop, the music that has reshaped the sound of popular culture since the early '80s and is now going on 40 years old...is a "novelty"? I mean, I must be misinterpreting you, because that would be a really reductive opinion.

Swytch
Swytch

The artists have no choice except to seek out crossover success. Going to the same Svengali producers over and over again obviously hasn't resulted in forward motion for urban music. I care less about this than the fact that acts like TV on the Radio will never have the level of support from people who look like them that Jay-Z does. Even rock is considered dead, and everyone wants the EDM sound. Maybe we can get some new genres out of the bargain instead of longing for what's been done to death already.

TS
TS

It's the negativity and the lack of originality in the material. There is nothing good happening for at least 10 years now. Hip-hop was only good as a novelty, no one wants to pay for it. R & B has always had a smaller audience, it's not every ones cup of tea...The problem in a nutshell is the wrong people are running the music business.

Selfenchanted
Selfenchanted

How much does Billboard REALLY matter now in the much larger media buffet?

Johnsomer
Johnsomer

Chris, keeping in mind that artists of color are represented highly on the Hot 100 (Rihanna, dancey Usher, Flo Rida) - it's just with songs deemed too pop for r&b playlists - has this phenomenon ever happened before? I would suspect not.

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