In 1991, Geffen Records shipped a little over 46,000 units of Nirvana’s Nevermind. The label ultimately hoped to get the album certified gold by September 1992, but was only really expecting to sell 250,000 albums total, which was considered relatively measly at the time. Nevermind, as we all know, went on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide, Nirvana came to symbolize early-’90s alternative culture as a whole, and Kurt Cobain became the ultimate figurehead of the grunge genre. Think about the gaping hole that would be left in music history if Geffen had never taken a chance on Nirvana.
Also, consider this: When EMI put out Radiohead’s debut album, Pablo Honey, it was met with dismal reviews and the record was considered a commercial failure. Subsequently, Radiohead was almost dropped from their label. Fortunately, EMI had the funds to take another chance on them. The band’s second album, The Bends, wasn’t a huge hit in the U.S. either, but it sold well enough in the U.K. for EMI to see the band’s vast potential. It took their third full-length, OK Computer, to truly propel the English quartet to international stardom. Imagine what we’d be lacking now had Radiohead never had the chance to develop.
And let’s not forget about Smashing Pumpkins' first album, Gish. It debuted at 195 on the Billboard charts and took a year to sell 100,000 copies, during a time when bands were expected to routinely sell millions. Still, Virgin Records signed them and granted them a quarter of a million dollar budget to record Siamese Dream.
The truth of the matter is, if Nirvana, Radiohead or Smashing Pumpkins were starting out in today’s musical climate, there is a good chance they would be struggling to be heard and struggling to survive. There’s a chance that only a fraction of us would even be listening to them. Today’s generation is the first to not have an all-defining band, a true marker of the place and the time. And the reason is simple: Record companies no longer have any money to find them.
Major labels used to be able to take a chance on developing bands like Nirvana, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins and countless others, because even when niche artists were working to find their place, the labels could rely on more mainstream pop artists to bring in the big bucks. And make no mistake, the revenues used to be huge: When N’Sync released 1998’s Home For Christmas, it had sold over three million copies by the time 1999 had rolled around. Today, Under The Mistletoe—an album from Justin Bieber, who's undoubtedly one of the world’s biggest pop acts today—is only expected to sell a fraction of that. What a difference a decade makes.
Today’s big pop artists have perfumes and clothing lines and endorsement deals to make their money, but who’s supporting the smaller acts now that the record labels aren’t making the big bucks from even their mainstream acts anymore? There is simply zero room for risk-taking in this environment. This is why today’s most popular rock artists play little more than cleverly crafted pop songs; arguably, the only difference between Kings Of Leon and Rihanna is a little distortion and a lot of facial hair. The formulaic, easy-listening song structure is painfully obvious to even the most novice musician.
To make matters worse, up until the last decade, labels could offer their emerging artists tour support—a means for the band to pay expenses on the road and a guarantee that they could feed themselves well at least every now and again. Today, labels are simply unable to do this, which means many of your favorite artists are crammed into hotel rooms, five or six to a room, and eating off the dollar menu every day. I have spent the better part of the last ten years on the road and I have watched, first-hand, the transition from “Everyone gets a bed” to “Can we crash on your floor?” creeping in at an alarming rate. A lot of very promising musicians are calling it quits before they’ve even had a chance to show the world what they’re made of, because it has become so impossible for them to survive day to day, let alone pay their bills.
The truth of the matter is, illegal downloading and piracy is destroying any chance we have of supporting emerging artists on a scale that can enable them to truly thrive. Arguing that you’ll download something and buy it later if you like it is, let’s face it, bullshit. It’s the same as going to see a movie and only paying on the way out if you enjoyed it. It’s the same as going to a restaurant and only paying for your food afterwards, if the meal blew your mind.
On top of that, most of the people who say they’ll buy a record if they like it after they’ve downloaded it are lying. For every five albums paid for, 100 are illegally downloaded. If music consumers behaved like this in every aspect of their lives, there’s a good chance that your favorite coffee shop and movie theater and restaurant would be long gone—probably like your favorite record store is.
There is new legislation currently being passed around called the Stop Online Piracy Act which, in short, forces ISPs to block piracy sites and can also stop sites like PayPal from delivering funds to these rogue sites. Critics of this bill complain that this could stifle innovation and could prevent the next YouTube or Napster from being created, but personally, we should all support this legislation. The tech industry has stifled innovation in the entertainment industry for far too long—and this simply must stop if musicians are going to get the financial support they need to keep making the music that we love. Truly, you get what you pay for.
The next Nirvana is definitely out there somewhere. Unfortunately, in this current environment, we will probably never hear them. And, if you’re one of the millions of people who no longer pay for music, you are directly—at least partially—to blame.