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Why Music Mergers are Becoming Stale Marketing
by Alex Cosper (2/9/15)

Everyone knows by now that music industry sales have been beaten down for quite some time. So what is the music industry, controlled by three big companies, trying to do about its survival? Common sense would dictate finding better quality artists and songs. What's actually happening is that not too many new artists have been getting released in recent years. Instead, the labels are doing a lot of recycling and teaming up artists together as an attempt to create a star-studded impact that will be reported on by mainstream media.

The latest evidence of this marketing gimmick is the 2015 release of "FourFiveSeconds" by Rihanna & Kanye West & Paul McCartney. The single quickly made the national top 20 on the strength of media hype, radio airplay and the names of three powerhouse artists. While Kanye and Rihanna can be heard prominently in the recording, the ex-Beatle is conspicuously somewhere in the background playing guitar. So why did the label even bother including McCartney, age 72, with two signficantly younger artists who appeal to a much younger fanbase (Rihanna is currently 26 and Kanye is 37)?

The answer is obvious: it's all about marketing. McCartney is one of the few artists in history who has made the charts almost every decade of the past half century. He missed the pop charts in the 2000s, but this record puts his name on a hit in the 2010s. He also missed having a solo hit in the 1990s other than he appeared in the reconstructed demo "Free As A Bird," which was packaged as a Beatles release. Other than those examples, McCartney has been absent from the pop charts since 1989, although he occasionally appears on the album charts.

Apparently there is a desperate attempt by the music industry going on to merge big names together as a remedy to falling sales. That idea comes from corporate thinking, in which big mergers between corporations go on all the time as a solution to save dying companies.

Yet the music industry should have learned by now that idea doesn't always work, as in the failed AOL Time Warner merger of the early 2000s, which at the time was considered the biggest corporate merger of all time. But instead of helping both companies, it created a disappointing financial and image disaster, which led to the companies demerging. The merging of radio chains to create radio empires also proved to be a fiasco, as those concoctions led to bigger mountains of debt.

Artists like Kanye West and Rihanna have been merging with other artists for the past decade. While both artists are still popular, their sales have eroded with the rest of the music industry in recent years. Her last million selling single was "The Monster" with Eminem in 2013. Prior to that year she regularly had multi-platinum singles dating back to 2005. Her last few albums have barely touched over a million units in the US, while her only multi-platinum album to date was the 2007 release of Good Girl Gone Bad.

For Kanye West it's been the same story of declining sales, although he's been more of a producer who teams up with other artists. "Gold Digger" was one of his biggesst hits, but the rapper of the 2005 hit was Jamie Foxx. Kanye, who used to also regularly have multi-platinum album sales, has seen his past four albums since 2008 drop below the 2 million mark.

On the surface it seems like a good idea to merge big name artists together as an attempt to stimulate sales for each career. In reality, however, it has not saved the music industry from a rapid meltdown in sales that started happening long before Spotify offered low cost multi-million song libraries to fans who would rather rent than buy music.

Lady Gaga's last solo album called Artpop hit number one in 2013 but the sales plunged badly after the first week and the album did not come close to the million mark, which is considered break even in the music industry. The costs of marketing are a big factor that work against sales. So what happened next? Lady Gaga teamed up with classic crooner artist Tony Bennett (now age 88) and they put out lounge duets. The album did debut at number one, but like most albums these days, it fell off quickly in sales after the first week. Five months after its release, that album called Cheek To Cheek has sold about a half million units.

So here we are in mid-February 2015 and the current number one single on the Billboard Hot 100 is "Uptown Funk!" by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars. The single and the album from which it comes mark his first big splash in America, although Ronson had already enjoyed a string of big hits in the UK.

Down the list is "Only" by Nicki MInaj featuring Drake, Lil Wayne & Chris Brown. Further down the chart is "Truffle Butter" by Nicki Minaj featuring Drake & Lil Wayne. There's also "G.D.F.R." by Flo Rida featuring Sage The Gemini & Lookas. But surprisingly most of the chart shows single name artists as solo or group releases. Not as much merger mania is going on like in the past decade.

There's a sense that merger mania is drying up in the pop world. At one time back in the 90s it was an effective marketing vehicle for introducing new artists by teaming them up with established artists. But now that technique has been done to death and there are signs that the public finally sees through it as marketing hype. The downside for someone like Paul McCartney is that he now has to deal with the image that his hits aren't getting bigger and better, plus he has to piggyback off the success of other artists.

What's really happening this century that isn't making music industry headlines is that most album sales are coming from older demographics. It's hard to see this as the case since the sales are spread out among classic titles and more adult contemporary sounding artists like Taylor Swift. The biggest block of music buyers, according to the RIAA's own stats, are in the over 40 age group. The reason the public is not aware of this trend is that the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart reflects airplay of singles from top 40 radio stations and sales of those singles. But the real bread and butter of the music industry has been album sales since the 1960s.

While hip hop and teen pop dominate the singles charts and younger-skewing radio station playlists, they are not breaking even on album sales. So as a marketing technique, we've seen a lot of attempts to merge artists from different genres or demographics. There have even been a few country rap mergers. But many people are figuring out this isn't accidental or creative artwork at play. It's an attempt to bridge markets together.

One can only hope that artists of the past like McCartney still have good songs in them. But so far the evidence contradicts that theory. The focus of the music industry has become strange marketing rather than innovation and the strategy does not seem to be working exceot in a few cases. Maybe it would be better for the music industry to just focus on finding higher quality songwriting.

Examples of Big Name Artist Mergers:

Rihanna - Kardinal Offishall, Nicole Scherzinger, Chris Brown, Jay-Z, Bono and The Edge, Eminem, Shakira
Kanye West - Twista & Jamie Foxx, Brandy, John Legend, Mary J. Blige, Britney Spears, T-Pain, Young Jeezy, Beyonce

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