For the first time fortysomethings are buying more albums than teenagers and it's all down to the '50-quid man' - the middle-aged bloke (or even woman) who is happy to splash out on a fistful of CDs. Tim de Lisle investigates the cultural phenomenon that is really shaping the music charts (both in the UK and North America)
Part of our chat, today, (George Pollard
talking about his chat with me, Elgin, April 5th., 2004) got me digging through some boxes for old pics.
Didn't find what I was after, but found this promo pic of "Paul Butterfield
Blues Band," circa 1967. Note the management; same as Dylan, at the time, and, a
little later, Janice Joplin. Grossman, long RIP, is the "bear" of "Bearsville"
records, recording studios and so forth in Bethlehem, New York, I think. (Albert
Grossman's estate: law case; and his
studio went to Bearsville, NY)
In the shops, the trend is much more pronounced. For the first time, people in their 40s are buying more albums than teenagers. According to recent figures from the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the 12-to-19 age group accounted for 16.4% of album sales in 2002, a sharp fall on 2000 (22.1%), while 40- to-49-year-olds went the other way, rising from 16.5% to 19.1%. Buyers in their 50s (14.3%) are not far behind. Soon, half of albums will be bought by people who have passed their 40th birthday.
This month's ABC figures for the music magazines tell the same story. Uncut and Mojo, the mags that put dead legends on the cover and compile epic accounts of the making of Pet Sounds, keep going up; Smash Hits and Top of the Pops, which give pre-teens their fix of Busted and Blue, are plunging. Smash Hits, once close to a million, is down to 114,000, only 3,000 ahead of Uncut. Q, the original grown-up rock glossy, is on the slide too, despite, or perhaps because of, taking drastic steps to get younger with cover lines such as "Raw! Crazy! Hot!" and a helpful A-Z of sex (A is for auto-asphyxiation). A young title called Bang, from the makers of Classic Rock, closed without a whimper. "It's easier," the publisher told Music Week, "to sell to the old gits."
Old gits, of course, are nothing new. Rock'n'roll itself turns 50 this year and its first wave of fans are pensioners. The term "adult oriented rock", meaning the Eagles if you were lucky and Boston if you weren't, was common currency 30 years ago. Live Aid in 1985 was dominated by seasoned acts such as Queen, and the arrival of the CD persuaded Beatles fans to buy half their record collection all over again. Nostalgia has had its niche in pop ever since 70s stars such as Showaddywaddy and the late Les Gray of Mud cheerfully recycled the rhythms and quiffs of the 50s. What has changed is that the older fan, rather than being a bonus, is fast becoming the music industry's best customer. And he - it is usually a he - has acquired a name: the 50-Quid Bloke.
The 50-Quid Bloke was defined last July in a speech to the BPI's AGM by David Hepworth of Development Hell, an independent magazine company. You may not know the name but the chances are you have come across Hepworth's work. His career is a microcosm of the entertainment media over the past 25 years. He wrote for the NME in the late 70s and then edited Smash Hits before becoming an executive at Emap and supervising the birth of Q, Empire, Mojo and Heat. He presented Whistle Test in the days when it was the only alternative to Top of the Pops, anchored the BBC's coverage of Live Aid, and later turned up on VH1, the older branch of MTV. And now he has launched Word magazine.
On a hot day at County Hall in London, Hepworth stood up and gave Britain's record-company bosses a lecture about their own customers, concentrating on "the 50-quid guy", a term he had picked up from friends in retail. "This is the guy we've all seen in Borders or HMV on a Friday afternoon, possibly after a drink or two, tie slightly undone, buying two CDs, a DVD and maybe a book - fifty quid's worth - and frantically computing how he's going to convince his partner that this is a really, really worthwhile investment."
The 50-quid bloke is a big user of the web, Hepworth says, but unlike his children, he wants to own things. He shops at Amazon as well as the high street. He loathes Pop Idol, telling the kids it devalues everything rock music stands for (the kids reply that it's only a TV show, dad). But he is defined more by his likes than his dislikes and, crucially, he wants to keep up. He likes the White Stripes, Coldplay and Blur and has persevered with Radiohead through the difficult last three albums. His latest buys are the debut albums from the Stands, who remind him of the Byrds, and Franz Ferdinand, who remind him of the Glasgow art-school bands of 1982. The fact that most of the new bands sound old is a definite help.
He has given up on Radio 1 and listens to Radio 4 more than any music station, though he likes the less cosy bits of Radio 2, such as Jonathan Ross on Saturday morning. If he had a digital radio, he would love BBC6 Music, with its slogan "the great, the new and no fill" and its habit of playing Franz Ferdinand alongside the Clash. He adores DVD: "It's impossible to overestimate what a transformational medium DVD is in all this," Hepworth says. "Videos seemed like a waste of money. DVDs are investments."
The 50-quid bloke probably has an iPod but uses it as a radio rather than a substitute for his CDs. His favourite recent film is Lost in Translation, in which Bill Murray shows his own 50-quid tendencies by crooning a karaoke version of the Roxy Music song More Than This.
He has been in love with music all his life - "He's got the High Fidelity chip embedded in his brain," says Jerry Perkins, publisher of Word magazine - but his interests have broadened along the way. He is university-educated, reads a broadsheet, of whatever size, and raved about Anthony Beevor's Stalingrad. He is not a great telly-watcher but loves The Simpsons and The Office and will miss Friends. And yes, he may be a she. Women bought 41% of albums in 2002, up from 38% the year before. "But frankly," says Hepworth, "blokes get the same giddy rush from buying CDs and DVDs that most women get from shoes. It's a spiritual thing."
At HMV, the BPI statistics confirmed what they already knew. "These people are baby-boomers for whom music has always been a central passion, and they have the disposable income," says Gennaro Castaldo, HMV's head of press. "A long time ago we stopped defining our target audience by age, because it's more about how much music means to them. A 50- or 60-year-old is very different from maybe 10 years ago. They have a very contemporary outlook. Bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes are not just the preserve of teenage NME readers."
The generation gap, once about content, has shifted to modes of consumption. For the under-30s, music is something to be shared and swapped and downloaded, legally or otherwise. It doesn't need to be owned because it's everywhere. If they do buy it, it may be in a form as slight as a mobile ringtone. This terrifies the music business, which can see itself slipping beneath the waves.
With Dido and Norah Jones ruling the album chart, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin selling plenty of DVDs, Duran Duran and Tears for Fears suddenly returning from oblivion and Franz Ferdinand achieving instant success, it looks as if the fifty-quid bloke is keeping the music business afloat. "There's a lot of evidence," Hepworth says. "Radio 2, Norah Jones, even The Darkness - these things appeal to an older demographic."
All these strands come together in the pages of Word. It is edited by Hepworth's mate Mark Ellen, whose career has followed a similar path except for being in the same rock band as Tony Blair at Oxford, Ugly Rumours. His magazine, launched last year on a hunch and a shoestring, covers music, but not just music - it will interview Matt Groening or Anthony Beevor or the creator of the iPod alongside rock stars chosen for their articulacy rather than their looks, such as Morrissey, Elvis Costello and Neil Tennant (who once worked with Hepworth and Ellen at Smash Hits).
The founders consciously went against the grain of formatted, processed magazines. "What inspired us," says Perkins, "was the idea that there were people who were desperate for substance. The current crop of magazines were either becoming more and more retro or dumbing down to appeal to some notional 19-year-old. The marketing tail was wagging the editorial dog."
The record companies are beginning to wise up to the change in the landscape. A recent edition of Music Week had a piece from Brian Berg, boss of Universal Music's UMTV arm, saying the industry had been under-serving the 40-plus market and the opportunities were "enormous". The Word gang, who have been out talking to record companies, report that "everyone's wising up to it". Castaldo confirms that the older consumer is "very, very important".
The 50-quid bloke has a special appeal to harassed record-company executives; unlike most stereotypes, he is defined not by his age or taste or membership of a cult, but by the amount he spends. And he is male, getting on a bit, and well off - so he is just like them.
It seems that the 50-quid bloke
is doing for the record companies what Diane Keaton has just done for Jack
Nicholson: after decades of running after the under-30s, they are ruefully
taking an interest in people of their own age.