By MAUREEN RYAN
A quick glance at MTV might give the impression that popular music is created predominantly by and for twentysomethings.
But the most powerful record buying bloc in America is made up of people over 40. And they're buying a wide variety of music -- from newcomers such as Norah Jones and John Mayer, to new work by veteran artists such as James Taylor and Bruce Springsteen.
There's more to the story than Baby Boomers flexing their demographic muscles yet again, though America's 81 million 35-to-54-year-olds do outnumber the country's 75 million 15-to-34-year-olds, according to 2000 Census figures. Boomers not only have the critical mass and the cash, they also have an entirely different relationship to music than young people do.
"This demo that we focus on -- adults, 35-plus, whatever you want to peg it as ... they're still connected to music," says Zach Hochkeppel, director of marketing for Blue Note Records, Norah Jones' label. For these folks, he notes, buying a record is "like [buying] a book. They want to have all the information. They want to have it in their library, as it were."
Whereas younger people are more apt to download or copy individual songs they like from friends -- if they're even interested.
"With teenagers and early twentysomethings, it is getting harder and harder to get them to buy a CD or buy more than just one," says Mike Camacho, manager of Tower Records on Chicago's Clark Street. "With the advent of video games and the DVD format, you've got to translate [value] into music, because the value of a 12-song CD is very low in the perception of customers, our young customers especially."
The record industry has been singing the blues in recent years about online piracy of music; in the third straight year of declines, sales slumped another 6.7 percent in 2002, according to figures the Recording Industry Association of America released in February. And a 2002 study by market researchers Ipsos-Reid shows that 52 percent of all 12-to-17-year-olds have downloaded music, as have 44 percent of all 18-to-24-year-olds.
And downloading isn't the record industry's only problem. "There's been all this outcry from R.I.A.A., that CD sales are down because people are pirating music," says Sean Wargo, a research analyst for the Consumer Electronics Association. "Well the fact is, there are products that are competing for dollars -- DVDs, software, people are spending time watching movies."
DVD sales for 2002 were up a stunning 75 percent over the previous year -- a jump of nearly $5 billion, bringing total DVD sales for the year to $20 billion, according to entertainment trade journal Variety. And sales of video game consoles were also up; in January, Nintendo's GameCube, Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's Playstation saw sales gains of 24 to 31 percent over the previous January.
"With older audiences, the whole Internet trading thing isn't as much of a problem, just because they don't have the time," Hochkeppel says. "They're much more apt to buy a CD if they're into it. They're used to that -- having a record as a document of a time and place, as opposed to [music being] something disposable."
For proof, just take a look at recent Billboard charts, where it's plain to see that older consumers have propelled CDs of new music -- not just greatest hits collections -- by veterans such as Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen and Taylor into the top 20, and have helped newcomers such as Jones, Josh Groban and Mayer go seemingly from nowhere to multiplatinum status.
But as Hochkeppel found, connecting with the over-40 crowd isn't easy. "An older demo -- they're not just going to buy [a record] because you used fast cuts and put a hip-hop star in the video," he notes. "Older buyers have to hear about it a number of times, so it makes the record label's job a little harder."
Artists have responded to this challenge by getting much more creative about how they promote themselves. Ten years ago, you would never have seen an artist of Sheryl Crow's stature serenading reality-show participants, and the sight of mellow folkie Taylor hyping himself in a TV ad is nearly as incongruous. But artists deserve credit for realizing that in today's splintered media environment, they have to go after consumers in a whole new way.
And the short version of the new marketing mantra could be: Forget Carson Daly, get to know Katie Couric and the folks at National Public Radio.
Miles Copeland, Sting's former manager, helped rewrite the marketing rulebook when Sting's last studio album, "Brand New Day," came out in 1999.
"Sting was verging on 50 -- there was no way he was going to fit MTV's format," Copeland recalls. "That meant thinking outside of the box -- primarily of ways we could get on TV. That's where our audience was."
Hence Sting's marathon appearances on daytime shows, late-night shows and, fittingly, a New Year's Eve show (Copeland talked Sting into changing the name of the record from "The Lovers" to "Brand New Day" so that they could tie it into new-millennium celebrations).
Following in Sting's footsteps, artists such as Springsteen, Taylor and Crow are increasingly looking to get on television any way they can. Some are even playing music on TV shows; Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers appeared on "CSI," singer-songwriter Aimee Mann has played on "The West Wing" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and Crow toted her guitar to CBS' "Big Brother" house. For most artists, though, network morning TV shows are their first stop these days.
Four years ago, Sting helped pioneer another now-popular method of promotion: artist as (tasteful, of course) commercial pitchman.
Copeland took one look at the video that Sting had made for "Desert Rain" and said, "You made a car commercial." He called up the folks at Jaguar, who were more than happy to make Sting and the song the centerpiece of a new TV campaign.
"They came up with a marketing campaign that was 10 times greater than the campaign that the record company had," Copeland says. "Our record went from dead in the water at 900,000 [units] to selling over 4 million. It took off like a rocket."
Such success was not lost on artists such as Taylor, who starred in a commercial spot advertising his latest album, "October Road." The TV spot and his ubiquity on everything from "The View" to "The Charlie Rose Show" helped Taylor's record debut in the Billboard top 10 last August and sell a million copies in the two months following its release.
Think the new approach worked? Well, Taylor's last CD, 1997's "Hourglass," took a year to go platinum.
Even hype-wary artists like Springsteen are following in Taylor's footsteps. The Boss made a host of TV and press appearances in support of 2002's "The Rising," and did an hourlong TV special on CBS in early March of this year. So far the record has sold more than 2 million copies.
Television may help the big shots reignite their careers, but non-commercial radio is helping a much wider range of artists gain notice.
"One of the best outlets for approaching the Baby Boomer customer has been public radio," says Tower Records' Camacho. "An NPR feature on Eva Cassidy skyrocketed her sales. ... I think that is one way we're selling music to a customer that is not listening to traditional radio."