FOR POP music, 1981 was remarkable only in its similarity to 1980.
An incontrovertible conservatism in muF sical tastes has become evident with the rise in popularity of country music and hard pop music. This has little to do with politics and everything to do with demographics and marketing. The median age is rising (it's now past 30), a process that's already being referred to as "The Graying of America." It's a situation that calls for different, adult expectations. In fact, the overall tone of pop music is changing, reflected in the two fastest growing radio formats: country and adult/contemporary.
Two styles of music dominated the sales charts in 1981--hard pop and heavy metal. Hard pop is essentially melodic heavy metal played by groups like REO (6 million copies of "Hi Infidelity" sold), Styx (close to 4 million copies of "Paradise Theater"), Journey, Foreigner, the Police and others. On the heels of their tour of 1981, the Rolling Stones managed to sell 3 million copies of "Tattoo You"; surprisingly, it was the first platinum album in their 20-year career. Overall, the number of gold albums dropped 6 percent from 1980 and the number of gold singles dropped almost 25 percent.
Excluding the continuing appeal of individual superstars, successful genres included funk, country and fusion jazz. What critics championed--and few people bothered to investigate--included reggae, ska, rockabilly, surf, Blitz (New Romantics), rapping, tribal rock, art-funk, hard-core punk, acid-funk and the new psychedelia. Punk virtually disappeared and most New Wave bands tried to distance themselves from that category. It didn't make much difference, though, since the public greeted most of these styles with a collective yawn.
Radio seemed to bend over backwards in 1981 to cater to its audiences' expectations. Jazz, classical, blues and bluegrass tended to be heard only on nonprofit or noncommercial stations. A number of satellite networks, with their potential for further homogenization, went into operation late in the year, but it's too early to assess their impact. Crossover, a key element in past years, seemed no longer to apply to black artists, who found themselves increasingly shut out of white playlists. This was particularly evident in one of 1981's key developments--video music programming for cable television and home entertainment centers. New Wave bands were heavily involved in video's infancy, but shows like Warner's MTV (Music Television) have shown that they're little more than Top 40 with a picture. Music video is still waiting for the commercial integration of hardware and software, but we can expect to see more simultaneous releases on vinyl and video in 1982 ("Queen's Greatest Hits" kicked things off in November).
Record sales for 1981 are expected to hover around the $4 billion mark--third-highest in history--but profit margins are down again. For years the industry considered itself recession-proof, but the last two years have proven that when money is tight, people will curtail their entertainment spending. As manufacturing and distribution costs escalate, record companies respond by raising prices, trimming rosters and cutting back on staffing, promotion and tour support for all but the biggest acts. Small labels and minimally commercial acts have always faced--and overcome--these limitations.
Perhaps more pressing is the rapid antiquatedness of records themselves. Tape sales are soaring--CBS cassette sales doubled this year and now account for 26 percent of the label's volume. With the quality of vinyl getting worse (expensive audiophile discs excluded) at the same time that prices are rising and playback equipment is dramatically improving, the future of vinyl isn't encouraging. Sony is reportedly plunking 40 million Walkman units in the United States this year (reinforcing consumers' emphasis on mobility). The year held no catharsis like the death of John Lennon, though the death of reggae avatar Bob Marley was a tragically early end to a brilliant career. Other deaths of note: Bill Haley, Mike Bloomfield, Harry Chapin, Marylou Williams and Roy Brown. Gone but not forgotten: the Eagles, Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan (and possibly Blondie and Talking Heads).
There's a major battle brewing between radio and the record industry over the "pay for play" issue. The record companies want to start charging a performance fee for music that radio has always used without charge; radio's response that it provides invaluable promotion is laughable in the light of tight playlists, but there's no denying that they've built their profits around a product that doesn't cost them anything. Watch that air space.
The major scandal of 1981 came, ironically, in a book about music: Albert Goldman's "Elvis" rates as print necrophilia. More repugnantly, it reeks of a cultural and class hatred so misdirected that in trying to bury Presley under his own failings, Goldman ends up condemning the South, poor people, women and rock fans.
Washington musical highlights of 1981:
* Mercurial performance artist Laurie Anderson at the Pension Building in the magical concert of the year--the lady is onto something in a manner no one else approaches, and she's funny to boot.
* Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones at the Capital Centre. Funny how the Stones' sound and performance got better when they were recording for a live album. It's hard to be nimble with sticky fingers.
* Joel Siegel's two outstanding series on American Popular Song at the Corcoran; intelligently conceived and passionately delivered by some of the finest singers in America.
* Don Cherry's Jazz Workshop Orchestra coming together over three days in a very cramped d.c. space and creating some suddenly celestial sounds in a nearly empty Pension Building.
* Cabaret legend Bobby Short holding forth twice at Charlie's.
* The Washington Folk Festival held each summer at Glen Echo Park--it focuses on the vast reservoirs of authentic ethnic cultures available in Washington, it's free and it's always a tremendous learning experience.
* The Smithsonian's Performing Arts series as a whole for providing historical perspective on overlooked American artists.
* The 9:30 club for an adventurous booking policy that brings fascinating and commercially unviable performers from around the world to Washington.
People to keep an eye on in 1982: Squeeze, Prince, U2, James "Blood" Ulmer, Was (Not Was), Kid Creole and the Coconuts, David Grisman, Al Jarreau, Kim Carnes, Rickie Lee Jones and Luther Van Dross. Those whose reputations exceeded them: the Clash, Adam and the Ants, the Go-Gos, Plasmatics, Ramones, Elvis "Country" Costello. Comebacks: Steve Winwood, Gary "U.S." Bonds, Smokey Robinson, Tom Verlaine, Credence Clearwater Revival. Go backs: Moody Blues, Miles Davis, Steve Miller, Elton John, George Harrison, Ringo Starr. Missing in action: Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Christopher Cross, Michael Jackson.
Predictions for 1982: probably more of the same. If radio and the record industry continue to push palatable and formulaic music, the consumer has two choices--expend the energy to seek out alternatives or look to the past (see Doors and Rolling Stones) for heroes. One way is hard, one is easy, so we'll probably be looking back as we did in 1981.
The record industry will look for new ways of establishing a new growth curve. Digital, which looked like an answer in 1980, is proving to be too expensive. Radio will be increasingly formatted, major record companies will be decreasingly adventurous as both industries confuse the needs and demands of the marketplace.
One thing that may take off in 1982 (but that won't reach fruition for several more years) is syntho-pop, built around synthesizers and electronic instruments. There's a whole generation of kids growing up with computers; they are going to want something to match the ambient rhythms of that technology. Guitar will still dominate for many years, but as musicians begin to understand the melodic and structural possibilities of synthesizers, the sounds in our head will change dramatically.