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Reassessing the Labels After a Record Year

January 16, 1994|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

The bold, intoxicating sound you're hearing in the music business in these early weeks of the new year is the sonic boom of change. Thanks to the information revolution, fads and fashions--and genuine shifts in musical taste--sweep through each new wave of pop fans as fast as you can say "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang."

Alternative-rock poster-badboy Eddie Vedder was on the cover of Time before people finished arguing about what alternative meant. Snoop Doggy Dogg made the cover of Newsweek before his album even came out, then topped the charts as pundits brooded about the cultural impact of his violent, misogynistic lyrics.

You want to talk real impact?

Ten of last year's Top 30 selling albums--records that all sold at least 1.5 million copies--were from artists who didn't even have a record contract in 1990. Tiny independent Priority Records, which lives on rap's razor edge, had a bigger market share than the EMI Records Group.

Thanks to a new burst of energy from the "Lollapalooza" generation--and an ever-increasing profit margin on CDs--the music biz is more than ever the money biz, with all sorts of labels reporting record earnings.

What makes industry execs bullish about 1994 is that this sweeping pop revolution has been a bloodless coup, with little of the nasty generational strife (Stones vs. "The Sound of Music," Sex Pistols vs. Boring Old Rockers) of previous breaks with the past.

Neil Young shared the stage with Pearl Jam. Bono crooned with Sinatra. For gosh sakes, Cher flirted with Beavis and Butt-head!

This wealth of cross-fertilization has launched a flood of marketing-driven Big Event albums--something we'll continue to see in '94. Why make a live album when you can revamp your old hits with an MTV-endorsed "Unplugged" album? If you have stars, hitch them to a concept: Send Streisand back to Broadway. Got a Meat Loaf album? Call it "Bat Out of Hell II."

Another lesson for '94: Most of the Big Event bonanzas capitalized on the mystique of an artist, not the talent. But with a wealth of fans eagerly exploring the brave new world of rap and "Lollapalooza" rock, there may be room in pop's Big Tent for everybody in the coming months, whether it's the scorched-earth rock of Rage Against the Machine, the creamy pop of Anita Baker or the first gangsta-rap Big Event--a Dr. Dre-Ice Cube reunion album.

For a glimpse at who's hot--and who's not--at the start of the year, here is Pop Eye's annual Record Company Scorecard, which analyzes the performance of the industry's six major distribution conglomerates, with individual listings for labels with the most distinct identities. The evaluations are based on interviews with key industry figures, who graded companies on both image and performance.


Arista: If the industry had a lifetime achievement award, this would be the year to give it to Clive Davis, a brilliant record executive who would probably earn more accolades if he weren't always patting himself on the back. Thanks to another 5.5 million sales from the "Bodyguard" soundtrack and a huge record from Kenny G, the label had two of the year's top three albums while racking up enormous country success with Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn. Arista's hot LaFace team scored with Toni Braxton, the year's biggest-selling female vocalist after Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey. The label's '94 priorities include Sarah McLachlan, Crash Test Dummies and a classic Big Event: an Aretha Franklin hits package that includes a LaFace-produced remake of "Natural Woman" with 'Retha, Bonnie Raitt and Gloria Estefan.

RCA: Another dreary year for a label whose A&R staff might have better luck signing a hit rock band by holding a raffle. RCA's one success was SWV, a double-platinum En Vogue knock-off that is hard to imagine as an act with longevity. Meanwhile, in the midst of the biggest country boom ever, RCA's Nashville roster looks weaker than ever. The big test for '94: the label's just-released ZZ Top album, the first result of a $35-million signing gamble. Is it any wonder many of RCA's top execs are floating their resumes?


Geffen: This highly regarded label bounced back late in the year, launching a respectable follow-up to Nirvana's groundbreaking "Nevermind" album, cashing in on Beavis and Butt-head and--can you say meal ticket ?--selling a whopping 2.5 million new Aerosmith records. That should make up for its Coverdale-Page letdown and Guns N' Roses' sputtering "The Spaghetti Incident?" album. Not to worry: The label is this close to breaking the highly touted Counting Crows, with a crowd of rookie-of-the-year candidates, including Hole and Beck, on the way.

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