Marc Muraoka asks:
Do you think that it is possible that there may never be another ubiquitous, unifying musical act due to the way that American culture has become so fragmented?
It is entirely possible that there may never be another great "superstar" in popular music. However, that would require a complete reversal of the historical trajectory. Various genres have competed for universal acceptance from the inception of the record business. The first mass produced records were made of paper and sold in the form of sheet music. The songwriters and music publishers from Tin Pan Alley plugged their tunes to great vaudeville stars like Lilly Langtree and Sophie Tucker. The best songs were performed by American families around the parlor piano as a major entertainment activity.
The invention of the Gramophone changed all that and in the early 1900s, the top opera singer of the day, Enrico "The Great" Caruso had the first million selling phonograph record. The antiquarian record industry peaked in 1928 with the emergence of Rudy Vallee. He started performing on the radio and introduced a new style of popular singer, the "crooner." In the days before the electric microphone singers required "big" voices to fill the concert halls of the day. Crooners had soft voices more suited to the intimacy of radio. Vallee would inspire later crooners such as Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Tony Bennet and 'The Voice," Frank Sinatra.
The record business leaped forward in the Big Band era when a mass audience embraced the song stylings of many other jazz singers of the day. Sinatra broke wide open in the latter 30's and eventually became a very successful solo artist and the next great superstar of music. In the 40s his legions of hysterical female fans, known as "bobby soxers," drove him to the heights of success in music. He had an enduring career with 11 Grammy Awards and he received the "Oscar" for Best Supporting Actor in the film "From Here To Eternity." He maintained his popularity into the 80s and continued to perform until just before his death in 1985. He was an ubiquitous star.
The modern record business was born in the 50s as a result of the marriage of 45 RPM singles and AM radio. A hybrid musical style resulted from white musicians blending The Blues and Gospel Music into a genre that would eventually be dubbed Rock & Roll. The great innovators were black artists Little Richard, Fats Domino and Check Berry and all had early hits on their original songs. It was very difficult for these artists to overcome the racial prejudices of the day, but the great ones eventually broke through. White musicians, like Buddy Holly and Bill Haley, emulated the hybrid style of the black artists they admired and achieved commercial success. The record business reached unprecedented heights as Elvis Presley rose to become The King of Rock & Roll.
In the early 60s the postmodern record business was born of the marriage of FM radio and 331/3 RPM, long playing albums. This new technology improved the quality of record fidelity and introduced "stereophonic" sound. The driving force behind the enormous growth that followed was "The Beatles." The Fab Four from Liverpool took America by storm in the early 1960s and the "British Invasion" that followed set the tone of popular music around the world for the balance of the decade. Thousand of artists were influenced by their music and millions of teenagers took up the guitar and dreamed of following in their footsteps. The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, according to John Lennon, who was harshly criticised for saying so.
Today, in the early years of the digital convergence, the music industry has been influenced by another giant leap forward in technology. The emergence of Pro Tools and Garage Band recording software has shifted control from the domination of the postmodern record business and placed the creative process in the hands of the artists. Internet music distribution has further eroded the power structure of the big four record companies. Peer to peer file sharing and other forms of digital piracy have eliminated the high profits previously enjoyed by the major labels. Music fans are no longer disposed to paying high prices for albums that may contain only one song they want.
None of these great "superstars" was expected to rise. Each came to stardom because of specific talents and charisma that they demonstrated to their fans. In the wake of this repetitive star cycle, it stands to reason that it will all happen again. All of these superstars generated music from a new genre, and each had enormous sex appeal that challenged the mores of their day.
Considering that the Internet is infinitely more powerful a promotional tool than AM and FM radio combined, an artist with the right combination of star components could attract a global audience over night. If an act produced a record that every music fan had to have, and there was the right amount of "love' in the mix, it would be possible to sell millions of downloads in one day.
If everybody with an iPod elected, by choice, not out of necessity, to purchase the song simultaneously, that artist could achieve fame and fortune instantly. It would require no more love than Sinatra, Elvis and The Beatles enjoyed from their fans. Every major music wave exploded from just such a doldrums as we are experiencing today. The Next Big Thing is out there floating around in cyber-space and growing toward a future of ubiquitous adoration. The music industry is thousands of years old and will never go away it is just changing one more time.
The record business is just over one hundred years old and it has always been technology driven. The influence of digital on music will continue to be imposed, and The Music Renaissance it has provoked will continue to put more songs, artists and records in play than ever before in history. Music fans have access to every genre, every artist and every song ever produced and paying for it is voluntary. The "superstar" today is music itself.
The Internet provides a global platform for the ins ant sharing and distribution of recorded music. Some great artist will inevitably pull this audience together into an international fan base and become the first ubiquitous "superstar" of the Internet. The great Paul Simon said it best, "Every generation puts a hero up the pop charts." That star is shining now and one great song, that everybody wants to hear one more time, is all that is needed to explode the sleeping giant's career.
The youth always reject their parent's music and choose the soundtrack to their own lives. Their quest for personal identity makes this search a coming of age ritual in our culture that so far has proved timeless. The emergence of a great star could provide the catalyst that will reinvent the music business. The challenge is how to get the public to fund the survival of this ancient art form. The record business will continue to shrink as artists sell their records directly to their fan base. This will happen through the bonding of artists and fans as they share music in the live concert experience. Something's coming, something big. It always has and it always will.