Everywhere you turn in the recording industry these days, youth reigns.
Stadium acts talk about pleasing "the kids" as Job One. Scouts spend their time chasing budding artists, and in the race for the big contracts, those under age 15 have a pronounced advantage. The biggest draws on MTV's "Total Request Live" are Britney Spears, 'N Sync and other acts whose target audience isn't using acne cream yet.
But things are rarely what they seem, particularly when it comes to music. According to 1999 figures recently released by the Recording Industry Association of America, the fastest-growing segment of the record-buying public isn't the Britney brats (age 10 to 14), or the Limp Bizkit generation (age 15 to 19). It's the Eric Clapton-and-chardonnay set.
In one of the more surreal statistical swerves of the kid-power era, the RIAA found that in 1999, adults 45 and over accounted for 25 percent of all recording and music-video purchases.
The jump -- a 36 percent increase over that demographic's 1998 market share and a staggering 122 percent increase over their 1990 share -- was the largest of any age group. And it happened in a year when for several other age brackets (including teens between 15 and 19 and adults from 25 to 29, demographics for which music traditionally plays a key part of life), purchases actually dropped.
Some have theorized that the one-year spike can be explained as kid-power at work -- parents buying the Backstreet Boys for Junior -- though most red-blooded adolescents like to do their own shopping. In fact, the survey, which the RIAA has conducted for more than a decade through phone (and now Internet) polls, doesn't explicitly ask respondents whom their purchases were for.
But some, including Alexandra Walsh, the RIAA's vice president of market research, have a hypothesis of their own.
"I truly believe that it's a Woodstock phenomenon," Walsh says. Music means more to that generation than it did to any previous generation. It defined their youth, says Walsh, and "they've been avid music consumers their whole lives."
Following that logic, if you were lucky enough to grow up with the Beatles and the Stones, you got an early indoctrination into the music-buying habit. If, however, you came up during the age of Poison and the hair bands of the '80s, RIAA statistics indicate you probably drifted away somewhere after Nirvana. What's playing in the background during your impressionable teen years has everything to do with a sustained interest in music.
Kate Hyman, a veteran talent-spotter who signed techno's Moby to V2 Records last year, has seen this theory proven time and time again.
"In the case of that upper-end [age] demographic, these are people who were raised on music. They're used to listening to really good music," Hyman says. "They're open to experimental things, they're curious. I think that's why a lot of older people are listening to college radio, because ... that's the only place you can get [non-mainstream bands] played anymore."
The last few years have taught Hyman that things have changed: When it comes to young people's leisure time, music has a lot of competition. There are videos, television shows, computer games, collectible cards, and the endless riches of the Internet, not to mention the traditional diversions of sports, reading and just hanging out.
The music industry, already beleaguered by piracy and unresolved questions about digital distribution, is having to address what some describe as an unexpected shift of focus. Many believe the answer is to stop over-serving children and return to an array of musical choices, including those that appeal to more sophisticated listeners.
Though some labels seem slow to figure this out, other media recognize the buying power of the music-crazed boomer. The smooth jazz and AAA (adult album alternative) radio formats are tailored to grown-up tastes. And virtually every major city has oldies stations playing early rock, rhythm and blues or soft rock.
VH-1 is now offering a specialized digital television service called VH-1 Classic, aimed squarely at the aging rock fan. The channel revolves around "heritage" artists such as John Mellencamp, Duran Duran, the Police, and Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders. Eric Sherman, vice president of digital TV for MTV Networks, says the service has been well-received since its launch in December.
Digital TV, with its expensive apparatus, depends on "an audience with a sizeable chunk of disposable income, and that group is it," Sherman says. "They control one of the largest percentages of spending power in the marketplace, and they've got an emotional attachment to rock."
The recording climate doesn't encourage that kind of loyalty among today's young music buyers. The labels put most of their marketing muscle into acts they believe have the best chance of landing radio (and video) hits. Fans are constantly asked to shift allegiances between last week's "established" star and this week's brightly burning sensation. There's little chance for a start-up talent to earn long-term fans.
"The people running [the labels] want the immediate gratification of the 5-million-selling hit," Hyman says. "They don't care if the act doesn't have another hit. ... The record business is incredibly age-ist."
Kevin Salem, a New York singer-songwriter and record producer nearing 40, says the meaning of music is different for baby boomers and the new music-buying public.
"The records that 17-year-olds are buying are really consumer- driven," Salem says. "The music of the so-called classic-rock generations, when people made music to break a personal boundary and not a consumer boundary, endures because it was not just made to be consumed."