TV's Biggest Show Hasn't Saved The Music Industry

Years ago, an editor pushed me to write a story about how "American Idol" would save the music business. 

I didn't write that story because I didn't believe it -- along with the fact that no music business forecasters would offer up such a theory.

 For decades, many artists didn't want to "sell out" to the masses who watch TV. That changed in recent years, as previously reclusive musicians gave in to the power of TV. 

Some of these artists are willing to do more than just the typical one- or two-song promotion. Take U2'sweek-long visit on "Late Show with David Letterman" in March of last year, where the group showed off virtually every song from their new album. 

Specific music-related TV shows have done their part, but only a handful of new artists have made the grade in selling music.

In pure sales units alone, Carrie Underwood, season four winner of "Idol," is the champ so far, selling some 11.2 million units over three albums. Kelly Clarkson, season one winner, comes in at number two, releasing four albums since 2003, with combined sales of 10.5 million.



Other successful "Idol" contestants include Chris Daughtry, who came in fourth place in season five. Daughtry, his musical act's name, sold 4.6 million copies of its first album, but only 890,000 of a recent release.

 More commonly, top "Idol" contestants wind up like Adam Lambert, second place in season eight. He has sold only 445,000 units so far of his first album, "For Your Entertainment."

Part of the problem is looking at musical success in terms of CD sales. The better, newer indication is digital downloads, which have long been a dual-edged sword for the music business.

Consumers would rather just pick and chose the songs they want from an artist. So season eight "Idol" winner, Kris Allen, sold just 233,000 copies of his first album. But one of his individual songs, "Live Like We're Dying," has had 551,000 downloads.

Overall total music revenue was $14.6 billion in 1999, and sank 29% to $10.4 billion by 2008. The downward trend is expected to continue, with estimates of $9.2 billion total within the next three years. 

No one can say "Idol" hasn't shed new light on the business. But the show is like a flashlight coming from one seat in the 100,000-seat Rose Bowl.

I can see the temptation of the emotional pull of TV. Hugely popular TV shows seem fertile ground for all sorts of marketing.  But for music marketers, this doesn't easily turn into real ROI -- no matter how many established musicians give performances on "Idol."

It's not like TV hasn't given it a shot. Other shows have been used by artists to sell their wares -- from NBC's "America's Got Talent" to music-specific shows like "The Sing-Off," which ran on NBC recently; "Rock Star" which ran on CBS a few years ago; as well as other reality shows with a musical bent like ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" and Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance."

But consumers have changed the game. The music business seemingly hasn't hit its lower notes yet -- and TV isn't part of the formula that can help save it right now.

9 comments about "TV's Biggest Show Hasn't Saved The Music Industry".
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  1. Jonathan Mirow from BroadbandVideo, Inc., January 18, 2010 at 12:55 p.m.

    Video killed the radio star. (Sorry - couldn't resist.)

  2. Melissa Pollak from National Science Foundation, January 18, 2010 at 1:11 p.m.

    Perhaps the main reason revenues are down is because the product isn't so good? Even TV can't always sell a bad product.

  3. Gail Bronson from Serial Entrepreneur, January 18, 2010 at 1:53 p.m.

    The public's discovery of Susan Boyle's talent is worth the expense of producing a show that is like "a flashlight coming from one seat in the 100,000-seat Rose Bowl." Don't you agree?

  4. Peter Feld from >.<, January 18, 2010 at 2:19 p.m.

    @Melisa Pollak Seriously. I would not use the commercial fate of contestants in a karaoke contest as a measure of TV's full potential to move product from actual musicians. Of course U2 makes the cut and Adam Lambert doesn't!

  5. Candela Leigh, January 19, 2010 at 4:51 a.m.

    With all due respect, this article rivals political spin for lack of facts, twisting of statistics, misquoting of figures, pure opinion and general misinformation.

    Well done, Mr Friedman! Have you thought of running for office?

  6. Penny Sabba from PWC, January 19, 2010 at 5:56 a.m.

    So, let me get this straight, Wayne ...........

    American Idol and shows like it were never intended to save the music industry. Please! Since when?

    You illustrate what an established act had to do to promote their album. What a backhanded compliment to a give a great band. Cheers!

    You then go onto compare Daughtry's WORLDWIDE sales for their first album to US ONLY sales for their second .............. and, wait for it .................... a master stroke in spin .................... you compare the worldwide sales of artists who have been selling for over half a decade to the US only sales of artists who have been selling for all of two and four months.

    As for picking and choosing tracks, that is the very reason that so many albums these days have as many tracks as possible that could make singles, seeing as these days customers do not even have to wait for a song to be released as a single in order to buy it individually. Kris Allen's album is an example of an album lacking in potential singles which probably explains the popularity of one track (and the reason why the record company stuck with it and didn't release something else when it wasn't selling well at the start) as well as the lack of individual sales of any other track from the album and comparative lack of sales of the album itself (and I say probably because there are other less complimentary and more controversial reasons being put forward for the relatively high sales of the single).

    Lastly, in this day and age, sales are generally so low that artists and those around them make most money from touring. Also, sales do less than ever for your standing in the industry. Take Susan Boyle for example - a gazillion albums sold and not one nomination by the UK music industry for the Brit awards that were announced yesterday.

    I have to ask, Wayne .............. did you get paid for writing this article?

  7. Carl LaFong, January 19, 2010 at 7:54 p.m.

    Ummmm.... no mention of Glee???

  8. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, January 20, 2010 at 3:09 a.m.

    As in olden days, musicians are going to have to tour and play live to earn their money. The recorded stuff will just earn fans and it will be an honor that those fans found and downloaded that.

  9. Mickey Lonchar from Quisenberry, January 20, 2010 at 6:36 p.m.

    'American Idol' save the music industry? That's like asking karaoke to save the music industry.

    If the industry wants help from TV, how about this: program some great series soundtracks using uber-interesting music (sorry, no Mariah Carey wannabes or poser Boy Bands), then drive traffic to a URL posted in the credits. A few notable series, namely 'Homicide: Life on the Street' and HBO's 'Six Feet Under' (and, of course, Apple's iPhone spots) built a sizeable following for some left-of-center artists. Of course, those are the ones the industry could care less about.

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