Career longevity going the way of the 8-trackA week ago I put on my disc jockey hat and went down to Hollywood & Highland to host a live courtyard appearance by Jerry Lee Lewis. Probably a couple of thousand people showed up for the Killer's 15-minute piano-pump; the audience ranged from superannuated old goats to a large cadre of tattooed and ducktailed neo-rockabilly kids, some still in their teens.
As I noted when I introduced Lewis, his career began 50 years ago with the release of his first Sun Records single. He has weathered one well-reported scandal, outrage and fiasco after another, and on Sept. 26 — three days shy of his 71st birthday — he released a new album, the all-star event "Last Man Standing."
The collection entered the Billboard 200 at a respectable No. 26; even though it dropped about 36% its second week, it has succeeded in maintaining the No. 1 slot on the top independent albums chart for two weeks running, outgunning competition from acts as diverse as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Dane Cook and Phish's Trey Anastasio.
Other veteran performers with careers of 30-plus years seem to be faring well in the early-fall marketplace. Tony Bennett, who has been in the game longer than Lewis, made a No. 3 entry with his similarly styled "Duets: An American Classic," which sold 202,000 copies its first week out. Bob Seger's "Face the Promise," his first album in 11 years, and Lionel Richie's "Coming Home" entered at No. 4 and No. 6, respectively, in late September. Bob Dylan's "Modern Times" has hovered in the top 30 for six weeks after entering at No. 1.
These old names have shown staying power, and few of their releases have shown the kind of immediate, precipitous drops that highly publicized albums by younger acts have experienced as a matter of course. Among the big fall titles, only Justin Timberlake's "FutureSex/ LoveSounds" has shown strong legs; after four weeks, the 'N Sync grad's second solo album, which held the top position for two weeks, remained at No. 5 last week with 1.2 million sold to date.
Contrast that with some of the fast fades experienced by other name performers in the fall record sweeps. Beyonce's No. 1 entry "B'Day" took a 70% hit in its second week. Janet Jackson's "20 Y.O.," which debuted at No. 2, witnessed a 74% free-fall its second frame. And Ludacris' "Release Therapy" dropped 64% the week after its chart-topping debut.
It's tough these days for even the biggest stars to maintain sales with fickle, computer-savvy younger-demo listeners; even Ludacris and Beyonce, who have launched high-profile film careers, have found it difficult to sustain momentum. In the current going, the older acts are enjoying smaller sales, but they're steadier — probably because their upper-demo fans aren't as liable to click a mouse to purchase, or purloin, a veteran's music.
The whole state of affairs raises a question: How will it be possible for artists to maintain their careers as the paradigm continues to shift to a track-by-track digital world?
As it is, it hasn't been easy for some time to sustain a career. Look back 10 years to 1996, when No. 1 albums were scored by the likes of Hootie & the Blowfish, the Fugees, Nas and A Tribe Called Quest.
That's just a decade ago, but it feels like a century. Will an artist ever again be able to put together a 50-year career? That's something for label executives to ponder nervously.