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3Qs: How music artists go from good to “Bad”

August 31, 2011 via news@Northeastern

Whether or not you’re a fan of Katy Perry, her skyrocketing success in the pop music world cannot be denied. Not only did Perry win Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards this weekend, but earlier this month the pop star became the first female artist in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 to have five singles from one album (“Teenage Dream”) reach No. 1 on the chart — joining only the “King of Pop” himself, Michael Jackson, in achieving this feat. We asked music industry expert David Herlihy, associate academic specialist in the College of Arts, Media and Design, to examine how the music industry has changed since Jackson’s five singles from “Bad” topped Billboard’s charts and what this milestone means for Perry’s career.

How does Katy Perry’s music career compare to that of Michael Jackson’s when he earned five Billboard No. 1 Hot 100 hits in 1987-88? Why are these the only two artists who’ve earned this accomplishment?

Billboard Hot 100 rankings are based on radio play and sales. The exposure necessary to “top the charts” does not come cheap. Record labels spend millions of dollars on coordinated media and radio campaigns in order to achieve the ubiquity necessary to reach upper chart positions.

Perry, like Jackson, creates highly produced, dance oriented pop music — a genre that appeals to a wide range of people and has a history of success on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Moreover, like Jackson, Perry is charismatic and telegenic — an essential ingredient for mass appeal. As a result, both Perry and Jackson have been top priorities for their respective record labels, and these companies pulled out all the stops to achieve massive exposure.

That said, there is a certain “Je ne sais quoi” as to why a given artist reaches a big audience. If more labels understood the “special sauce” to create massive crossover appeal, more artists would achieve it.

What major shifts have occurred in the music industry since Jackson first achieved this feat?

The impact of digital technology has completely disrupted virtually every aspect of the recorded music industry. Jackson’s chart topping accomplishment was achieved during the “top down” entertainment era, when essentially the only way to discover artists and music was to tune in to major media outlets, such as commercial radio, television, newspapers and magazines, and the only way to acquire new music was to visit a record store to purchase a physical record.

The entertainment industry in 2011 is exemplified by a “bottom up dynamic,” in which fans connect directly to musicians and with each other. The gatekeeping intermediaries that controlled the music industry in the 1980s are no longer necessary for an artist to reach his or her audience.

Because recorded sales are diminishing overall and radio play is no longer essential for artists to reach their audiences, the Billboard Hot 100 no longer functions as a fool-proof measurement of an artist’s success or longevity. In today’s digital entertainment environment, an artist’s accomplishments might be more accurately measured by an analysis of social media activity, merchandise sales and attendance at live engagements.

What will Perry’s achievement mean for her career, and does it lend insight into the music industry as a whole and the direction it’s headed?

While Perry’s achievement is certainly momentous, achieving multiple Hot 100 Chart positions is not the career guarantee it once was. Because of the diminishing role of radio and retail in the popularization and dissemination of music, Perry will need to continually work harder to maintain her primacy in the current fragmented, super-niche media marketplace.