Grammys May Conceal Gloom

The music industry's in a deep slump, but you won't know it by the glitz, glamour, and hype surrounding the 44th Grammy Awards.

Scheduled for the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday, February 27, the annual orgy of self-congratulation will wear a happy face to hide the music industry's pervasive pessimism over one of its longest and most profound sales slumps. CD sales are off substantially for the second year in a row, and there are few emerging superstars or new genres to reinvigorate the business. Although it's still going strong, rap is now well over 20 years old.

Last year, when blank CDs exceeded music albums in units sold for the first time, only one of the industry's "Big Five," Universal Music, managed to report a profit. This year isn't shaping up any better. "It's grim, the most grim it's been since I've been around the business," Geffen Records founder and SKG DreamWorks partner David Geffen told Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times. It's a reality few in the business are willing to acknowledge publicly.

Recordable CDs and downloadable tunes are only partly to blame for the industry's malaise, however. A large part of the problem is top-heavy marketing and promotional departments with overblown expectations for marginal acts. In addition, the culture at big record labels has changed. Executives now expect instant results from performers who, in an earlier era, would be just beginning to mature as artists. Companies have little patience for nurturing artists, said Capitol Records president Andy Slater, who mentioned that the industry used to expect great things not from an artist's first album, but from the third. "Can you remember the last artist we were patient enough to even have get to a third record?" Slater asked. "It becomes a one-act show."

Perceived disrespect for artists has engendered its own backlash. While executives search desperately for the next big thing and struggle to keep their companies profitable, the artists on whom they depend have grown increasingly resentful of being treated like indentured servants. On Tuesday, the night before performers, producers, and executives mug for the television cameras, the Recording Artists Coalition, led by Eagles member Don Henley, will be sponsoring four protest concerts within a few miles of Staples Center. Among the performers will be the Eagles, one of the most successful rock bands of all time. Sheryl Crow and No Doubt will also play, with the goal of raising money for what Boucher describes as "a political battle against what they call the industry's unfair contracts."

Anecdotal evidence: Last year, while researching a custom installation feature for Home Theater Interiors, I went to southeastern Missouri and met with some very nice folks who had been friends with Crow when she was in high school. They were planning to attend the wedding of Crow's sister in LA the following week. When asked if Sheryl would sing at the wedding, they sadly shook their heads and said, "No, her contract won't allow it."

The industry's top brass may not respect those who've recently entered the trenches, but they will shower praise on those who helped make them rich. On Wednesday night, in addition to a "Tribute to Motown," the music industry will offer "Lifetime Achievement Awards" for Count Basie, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como, Al Green, and Joni Mitchell. Geoff Boucher's in-depth analysis can be viewed here.