Sometimes the truth is hard, but the truth is that music does not sell the way that it once did. Before this is accused to be a generalization, all styles and former blockbuster artists have waned in the amount of albums sold. Younger generations are more content with an a la carte approach in which they can select their favorite songs or the singles.
Some artists have even compromised/molded their ‘artistry’ out of humongous pop hits as opposed to a cohesive album. Additionally, throw in the latest trend of online listening services (Spotify and Rdio) where a monthly subscription to stream replaces purchase of digital tracks, and you have a whole other threatening agent to physical music sales. The CD still exists, but things have cooled off – go to any big retailer and you can see this in action. But this opinion editorial is not going to tackle the entire industry, but rather a tiny sub-section – R&B music.
Case Studies: Alicia Keys, Usher, Mary J. Blige & Beyoncé
R&B has become the ‘ugly-stepsister’ of musical genres it seems. Once proud, R&B was led, even into the 00’s by sure-fire artists like Alicia Keys, Usher, Mary J. Blige, and Beyoncé. Each had smash albums that were critically revered and earned both Grammy nominations and a share of victories. Each’s current album, however, has failed to be the commercial hit it was expected to be.
Alicia Keys: Keys’s 2012 effort Girl On Fire wasn’t a bad album and generally received critical praise, but bowing at no. 1 with a mere 159,000 copies is not familiar territory for a superstar the caliber of Keys. Just three years earlier, The Element of Freedom had bowed at no. 2 (stuck behind one Susan Boyle) with 417,000 copies. Go back to ’07s As I Am, propelled by no. 1 hit “No One” and Keys blew everyone out with 742,000 copies sold in one week! I can’t speak specifically about Girl on Fire’s final sales tally, but there’s a good chance it has yet to hit the 742,000 mark in total sales.
Usher: Usher outperformed most artists on his excellent 2004 album Confessions, one of the ultimate crossover R&B successes EVER. Few can brag that they sold 1 million in one week (obviously bowing atop the Billboard Albums chart), and more remarkably, selling 10 million copies, attaining Diamond certification from the RIAA. 2008’s long awaited follow-up Here I Am didn’t achieve the same success, but nor was it expected to. Even so, bowing at no. 1 with 433,000 copies and being certified platinum was fine after a lengthy hiatus.
2010’s critically scrutinized Raymond v. Raymond would also bow at no. 1, with fewer copies, but still a more-than-respectable 329,000 copies and another eventual platinum album. Where things fall apart is 2012’s stronger, though more pop-oriented Looking 4 Myself , which kept Raymond’s string of no. 1s alive (excluding 2010 EP Versus), but bowed an astounding 200,000 copies less (128,000 copies). Status: <Gold. Yuck (probably replace the first letter with another one to get Usher’s perspective).
Mary J. Blige: Mary J. Blige had impressive success in the 1990s, but her 2005’s The Breakthrough is generally considered one of the best R&B albums of modern times. After a so-so reunion with Diddy on 2003’s Love & Life, 2005’s MVP took a risk by picking a December 20 release date that paid off big. Hit single “Be Without You” intact, The Breakthrough scored by bowing with 727,000 copies. To add some more fuel to the R&B fire, Jamie Foxx debuted at no. 2 with his anticipated solo album Unpredictable with 598,000, a total that easily would’ve topped the chart any other week!
The Breakthrough went on to be certified triple platinum by the RIAA on April 10, 2007. Like with the rest of the R&B torchbearers, Blige’s success would continually wane. At first however, it wasn’t shabby in the least. 2007’s Growing Pains wasn’t expected to splash onto the charts like The Breakthrough, but it did INCREDIBLY well initially bowing at no. 2 (629,000 copies) and peaking the following weak at no. 1. Growing Pains didn’t have “Be Without You” working in its favor, but did have a minor hit in “Just Fine” as well as a promo campaign with hip-hop soul cut “Work It“. It would be certified platinum and win Ms. Blige another Grammy.
After her most recent platinum album, Blige has settled for gold. 2009’s Stronger With Each Tear bowed at no. 2 (behind a spoiling Susan Boyle just like her soul sister Alicia Keys), selling a solid 330,000 copies. The album missed platinum status, but not by much. The bigger concern was 2011’s oddly titled, average My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act 1), which debuted at no. 5 with 156,000 copies. Even with the drop, unlike Usher’s Looking 4 Myself, the effort has been certified gold. Maybe the growing concern is when Blige releases her next album, how will it sell? Will it be the Mary J. Blige album to fail to be certified?
Beyoncé: Finally we come to who seems to be the best shot of the three to dominate a fading R&B world. Beyoncé has had success with each of her four albums, ’03s Dangerously in Love , ’06’s B’Day, ’08s I Am…Sasha Fierce and ’11s 4. If you follow Mrs. Carter, you’ll know one of the ‘4’ had less success. 4 is able to tout the least of the success stories, never really ‘lighting’ up like its big brothers. While it debuted at no. 1, was certified platinum, and even won a Grammy (“Love On Top“), it didn’t have the same chart life or fanfare of a Beyoncé album.
Beyoncé is sort of like Kentucky Basketball; Kentucky only hangs championship banners and Beyoncé tends to rack up platinum, better yet ‘multiplatinum’ albums. Like Blige, where does B go from her with a pending fifth studio album? Will she be able to return to her commonplace platinum heights or be reduced to gold or worse?
Others: Others have experience the same career downturn in R&B music. Chris Brown didn’t help his own cause, but it is fair to state that F.A.M.E. was a successful comeback following the tepid Graffiti released during his ignominy for the Rihanna abuse incident. Fortune, the follow-up, hasn’t been a critical nor a commercial darling. For Trey Songz, Chapter V gave the sensual R&B star his first no. 1 album. Unfortunately, it happened with a considerably smaller debut week and less total sales. With Fantasia, she achieved her first top five album with 2010’s Back To Me (bowed at no. 2), but it bowed less impressively than previous efforts with 117,000 and failed to reach gold status.
Major vs. Indie Releases: Another study of R&B’s commercial fortunes is the major vs. indie route. The trend is after a R&B artist has exhausted their success on the major label, they tend to go independent. Today it seems as if there are tons of independent R&B artists that have been on major labels. There is nothing wrong with being independent, but the problem is that these independent artists are struggling as well. Even worse, independent promotion is not so hot either… Bet many people (and fans) have been unaware of new releases by Brian McKnight, Keith Sweat, Angie Stone, and Joe because of tepid promotion.
What Is The Solution?
As you can see, example after example shows that R&B is ‘commercially’ in trouble, regardless of critical support. Artists that used to be sure-fire
platinum staples have fallen from their lofty, viable perch. How often do R&B singles sit atop the Billboard Hot 100 anymore? This is rhetorical because it just doesn’t happen unless you’re Rihanna (depending on how you categorize her) . For example, Miguel and Frank Ocean are both critical ‘saviors’ of the genre, but haven’t be able to commercially save it. There is a difference.
So the question is, ‘what is the solution?’ My answer is the way R&B is promoted (the audience, demographics being considered) as well as material (the way it is executed). As far as promotion, the promotional schemes that major labels are taking for R&B artists seems more minimal than maximal. A minimal approach just isn’t enough for a genre that is hurting for a commercial breakthrough; focusing less money and devotion is only fueling the failure.
2013 is already threatening to be another horrendous year promotionally for R&B. Charlie Wilson put out a single for his latest, Love, Charlie last fall I believe, but where did that single go? Nowhere. Where has the album went? Really nowhere. This is a problem. Sure Wilson is not in his artistic prime, but his album should still be more viable commercially than just a throwaway commercially. This lack of commercial success also does little for the legacy of the album; it just becomes memorable for bombing.
Fantasia releases Side Effects of Me Tuesday, April 23. She has released a single that has generally went unnoticed on the pop charts, which hurts potential sales. She did, however, perform on American Idol. Even so, ratings are down and there is a huge discrepancy between those who watch and end up purchasing the performing artists/winners, etc. So, Fantasia is potentially left in Limbo to watch her album possibly be cooly perceived. That’s a problem. The promotional scheme has to tighten up artistically and from the label perspective.
The material also most be strengthened on R&B sounds. Miguel, The Weekend, and Frank Ocean don’t have and ‘identity crisis’ as they are ushering in a more eclectic movement of R&B, but others have become content to release big adult contemporary cuts that don’t have enough oomph to propel the album. That is not to say some of them are solid tracks, but they don’t really
allure a new group of listeners or garner the radio play to help propel album sales. They aren’t trendy or more important distinct enough to ‘get it done’. While he is not an overt R&B artist, Justin Timberlake has had the right ideas of straddling pop and urban music. This can fail as well (Usher, Chris Brown), but it can succeed if it is done carefully and thoughtfully and doesn’t shun the fans that established the artist.
These are opinions and opinions only, but as a fan of the dying genre and a musician myself, there has to be strategical fixes to a cooling genre. Much like the arts are in jeopardy in schools, R&B is in jeopardy, and that is a shame. There is too much rich history to let R&B fall by the wayside. The artists that identify themselves as an R&B artist must restore it to a viable style commercially. It could only benefit their own pockets, right. More importantly, what about their legacies? No one wants to be ‘washed up’ right?