Content wants to be free! Except here.
This is the second part of a two part look at the era of music just before digital media took over. The first part, with more information on Hootie’s discography than you’d ever want, is here.
America didn’t suddenly wake up and realize they stopped liking Hootie, although that’s a believable reason to some. The better explanation is the turn of the millennium, tectonic shift in media consumption and gathering. Hootie was the Pets.com of the record industry bubble, and if what we’ve done to Nickelback in the last few years is any indication, Hootie wouldn’t have survived a YouTube comment section let alone continued touring past Y2K.
The dates of Hootie’s success and eventual fading away are crucial. The early 90s were economically triumphant in comparison to the previous decade, and with music being broadcast on standard cable and across a varied radio environment, there was plenty to be had for all. Then, 1996 hit, and Congress passed a little number called the Telecommunications Act. The diversity of radio went out the window thanks to a specific clause in the act that removed many of the restrictions regarding how many radio stations could be owned by single entities, giving rise to markets dominated by the Clear Channels and Trinity Privates of the world.
With less players in control of what hit the airwaves, and less opportunity for little guys to get involved in competing in major markets, deregulation cost a lot of the variety of broadcast music. It was harder for a regional radio station to exist outside the box when promoting new music; anyone familiar with the Boston radio scene may know the history of WFNX and WBCN, at one point independent. WFNX was bought this week by Clear Channel, and the eulogies of independent radio have been abundant; BCN, is no longer in existence, replaced by FM sports talk. This happened elsewhere, as well, and over a decade, more obscure alt-rock stations gave way to either Top 40s or The Hits of The 80s, 90s and Today.
Darius Rucker didn’t become country after his Blowfish days; it has a lot more to do with the radio environment he re-entered with 2008’s solo effort “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It”. The format we know as “country” similarly adjusted in the radio shuffle, becoming more mainstream and scooping up plenty of acts that would never have been considered Nashville in the mid-90s. If you can tolerate it, give Cracked Rear View a front to back listen and tell me that it wouldn’t be on your country station these days before it would ever hit the KISS or Alternative station. Formats had to both expand and exclude to survive.
Radio formats and changes alone don’t explain how a band that once sold 20 million records all but disappeared. There has to be at least a few other factors that changed how we consumed music, which leads us to a little development that rocked the music world known as widespread peer-to-peer file sharing.
It’s been 12 years since Metallica’s very public lawsuit with Napster brought even more attention to the service that made mIRC backroom sharing a public activity. Shawn Fanning didn’t invent the MP3; he just made it simple and easy to share, and in the process, created a new currency of music. Cassingles were a terrible way of passing an individual song around because you had to give up your copy to let a friend listen.
This piece is not about where the record industry did or didn’t embrace the technology of the MP3. This is about timing, how Napster was in the right place at the right time thanks in part to a storm of activity included High Speed Access in homes, CD-R in every computer and flash memory developing beyond Zip Drives. It’s not that the option to buy Cracked Rear View was suddenly gone; it’s that there was an option to avoid a receipt that proved we wanted to hear it again.
As users, we changed the way we could access and accumulate music, and it made terms like “platinum album” and “discography” obsolete. As Napster came and went, other services – both legal and less-legal – took its place, but the change still revolves around the redefinition of music discovery and the currency of that transaction.
It’s realistic to say that we are not likely to see a new artist reach 20 million albums sold, when 15 years ago, Hootie made it look so easy. It isn’t their fault that we downloaded music from anywhere we could find it, legal or not. But we could. And now we still do.
Time, the past has come and gone, the future’s far away.
I pay Spotify $10 every month now for my music, streaming on my computer all day and my mobile device in between my apartment and office. It has almost any song I can think of, immediately at my search bars’ desire. It’s seamless, it’s a lot more affordable than the $40-50 I spent monthly on CDs in high school and a lot more legal than those Napster-and-their-ilk services have appeared and disappeared during the last decade and a half.
Perhaps it’s a bit of irony, or maybe the fact that we all already own it, but you can’t stream Cracked Rear View in the States on Spotify. If you want to listen to it, you may just have to blow the dust off that cassette deck, find a pencil to get the tape fixed, hold the fast forward button for 30-45 seconds to get past Hannah Jane, press play, sit back and enjoy.
“What is it about Hootie and the Blowfish that appeals to so many people? The answer was that Hootie, a plain-looking, sports-loving, innocuous band that even a mother could love, fit society’s definition of normal. Today, the question about Hootie is, How long will it appeal to so many people?” Neil Strauss, New York Times, August 1, 1996
Darius Rucker is a country music star these days. He’s two albums into the gig, working on a third and setting out on tour with the most successful young trio in the industry, Lady Antebellum. He can keep showing up at the ACMs all he wants, he will never escape where he came from: a college band born and bred in Columbia, South Carolina called Hootie and the Blowfish.
It was a magical time, known to you and me as the mid-90s. Radio was still fairly diverse. You bought your music from brick-and-mortar locations like Sam Goody’s, Coconuts, Tower Records, Newbury Comics or Wherehouse. If your parents were really cool, you ordered from a CD Club which promised those first 12 CDs for the price of one before you had to order a year’s worth at full price (these somehow still exist, but, unfortunately, they are no longer accepting registrations). The case of CDs you had in the back seat of the Jetta was part personal archive, part conversation starter and, on occasion, used to impress your date after the 7 p.m. showing of Titanic.
Our specific history lesson picks up part of the way into the tale in June 1996. That was when Hootie and the Blowfish’s two-year old album Cracked Rear View received its 14th Platinum certification – earning it honors as the second highest selling debut album at the time. There is rarely a situation that a Wayne’s World quote is not applicable, and I paraphrase from the sequel for the topic at hand, “[Cracked Rear View]? Everybody in the world had [Cracked Rear View]. If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide.” The album still reigns in the top 15 of all-time North American record sales.
There really could be nothing more descriptive of the 90s CD-club culture than the Atlantic Records-pressed disc. Supporting the album were four singles that received pretty significant airtime on alternative, college rock, indie and Top 40 radio. By mentioning the song titles (Hold My Hand, Let Her Cry, Time, and, of course, Only Wanna Be With You), you will be stuck hearing them in your head for the rest of the day. Three hit at least 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, with Only Wanna Be With You spending about four months hovering around 6th or 7th. Beyond radio play and in a world without other ways of acquiring music, if you wanted to hear Hootie’s “tribute” to Bob Dylan (that they had to settle out of court about), the solution was that field trip to the $15-a-pop record store or making it one of your monthly CD club choices.
Success bred success for Hootie et al, which was then followed by saturation and even hatred. With killer sales of Cracked Rear View (they were still topping 40,000 copies a week), the group churned out another cut, the sophomore effort Fairweather Johnson, released that same spring of the 14th certification. You can’t name a song off of the disc even though it passed 1,000,000 sold within the first four weeks and was #1 at release on Billboard’s 200. That album was certified triple platinum about two years after its release. For comparison’s sake, that was only four months longer to reach 3,000,000 album copies than Lady Gaga’s debut The Fame. Digest that for a second.
If you’re scoring at home, that means we purchased some 17 million copies of Hootie albums through 1998, when the third part of the Blowfish discography, Musical Chairs, hit shelves. If you can’t name a track on FJ, I would be shocked if you could name the single that got some courtesy play on the cookie-cutter, post-radio-deregulation “Mix” station (It was “I Will Wait”). Somehow, that album, too, went on to go platinum. The stats at the end of the decade: three albums, 20 million copies floating around jewel cases in the United States of America that have long gathered dust.
The last we heard of H&tB was one more Atlantic Records release in 2000 (the cover-driven Scattered, Smothered and Covered, which makes me want Waffle House more than want to listen to it) and a “one last thing before I go country” disc in 2005 from the smaller Vanguard label (Looking for Lucky). Neither performed well.
Part 2 is here, which, among other things is timely because of the news that Boston’s independent WFNX got sold to a major broadcasting group.
The cloud will never catch on until I guess we convince people that local-based music and MP3 “collecting” isn’t as fun as it sounds. From Grantland:
“There is a thrill in collecting, in acquiring physical objects and yearning after those things you have yet to acquire. When it comes to music, Spotify is the first product I’ve come across that suffocates the idea of collecting music altogether, which is why I both love it and fear it. That summer, I wound up acquiring 618 of the 792 cards in the 1986 Topps set, and 23 Dan Gladden doubles; that summer, I wound up listening to that Big Audio Dynamite cassette over and over again in an attempt to convince myself it was worth the $3.99 I’d paid for it, while daydreaming of what it would be like to afford a copy of Sandinista! Now, a kid can afford whatever he wants, whenever he wants it, without even the hassle of sifting through bad links on Mediafire or the guilt of engaging in piracy. I would have loved Spotify in the summer of ’86; now that it’s here, I can’t get past the feeling that even if I’m not stealing, I’m still cheating myself.”
“We’re just moving out of the brief period—a flash in history’s pan—when an artist could expect to make a living selling records alone.”
~Damian Kulash, lead singer of OK Go, in a brilliant WSJ Op-Ed on the new ways to succeed in the music business