CD Glut Hurts Music Sales

This week, Kalan Porter, the angelic choirboy from season two of Canadian Idol, will release his second album. That, in and of itself, isn't all that remarkable. The kid from Medicine Hat, Alta., with the blond curls deserves it. Since winning Ben Mulroney's prime-time karaoke contest in 2004, Porter has sold about 160,000 copies of 219 Days. What is incredible, however, is that his new album, Wake Up Living, is the 34th to have come out of the five-year-old TV franchise. Yeah that's right, 34. And while some, including Porter, Hedley (165,000 copies) and Rex Goudie (80,000 copies), have scored major success based on data compiled by Nielsen SoundScan, many other former Idols have dropped discs that very few have bothered to pick up. As of mid-August, Suzi Rawn had sold 950 copies of Naked. Brandon Jones's debut, All for You, has sold just 200 since it came out in mid-June. And five months after the release of Chris Labelle's debut, Two Weeks Tuesday, it has sold - wait for it - a grand total of 90 copies (in his defence, maybe the rest of his family and friends are still away on summer vacation).

Putting those dismal sales numbers aside for a moment, the fact that so many CDs have come out of this one show speaks to a much larger problem. Too many people think they can be recording artists - a foolish dream cultivated by Canadian Idol itself. Most people complain that the Internet ruined the music business by making its sole commodity available for free. But the Web's greatest disservice is that it has made music way too easy to make and distribute.

These days, anyone who thinks they're the next Clapton - or at least the next Mayer - can buy some decent recording software, a computer and a six-string and turn their parent's basement into a recording studio. Then it's off to upload their tunes on MySpace, or, if they feel like hitting the streets, burn a few CDs for next to nothing and mail them off to the media. No expensive studio time. No need to impress a big label. The result, as any music journalist will tell you - if you can find him amid the stacks of CDs that land on his desk every week - is that there is plenty of crap out there. "A lot of people who were kept out before because they suck are now able to play," says industry expert Bob Lefsetz. "The hit-to-s--t ratio is very very low."

With many of the major labels cutting back on the number of albums they release - not in any honourable attempt to provide quality over quantity, mind you, but as a way to cut costs - you'd think things were getting a little bit better. But the rise of digital distribution and a seemingly infinite number of smaller labels have picked up the slack, which is a problem for consumers. "When there's too much coming at you, you tend to become numb to it," says Terry McBride, the CEO of Nettwerk Music Group, which manages Avril Lavigne and Barenaked Ladies.

The average music consumer is overwhelmed by all the choice - and is ultimately left to make some bad decisions. It doesn't help that they're not getting a lot of guidance. For a long time, says Lefsetz, MTV and FM radio would "listen to all the crap and tell us what's good." But those days are gone. Top 40 is dead and there isn't a widely accepted authoritative source acting as the taste police at a time when, thanks to iTunes, people are consuming more music (and therefore, a lot more really bad music) than ever. "Whoever figures out how to be the filter will make all the money," says Lefsetz. "People want to be told what to listen too." While some music sites - including Pitchfork and the Daily Swarm - help fill the void, they don't have a broad enough appeal. It's also important, says Lefsetz, that whoever takes over this role not be tainted in any way by the machine. "You want to know," he says, "that they're doing it for the love of music."

The same goes for those in front of the mike and, hopefully at least, a few of the bigwigs pulling the strings over at corporate. To make it worth its while, a label has to be confident that an artist that it backs can sell at least 25,000 albums, says McBride. Especially if the company is putting its full weight behind a promotional push, which can cost anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. McBride thinks that good music almost always finds an audience. But, he says, if a label doesn't truly believe deep down that something it's releasing is great - even after all the money has been spent to record it - it should do everyone, including itself, a favour. "Don't release it."


Maclean's September 10, 2007