Beat goes on for boomers
Over-30 crowd making the cash register sing

By Anthony DeBarros

America's notoriously youthful music audience finally is showing some age.

Today, a series of high-profile album releases is expected not only to challenge sales records but to highlight a trend that's been growing for a decade: Nearly half of music sales these days are to people over 30, according to industry data. And, in another noteworthy phenomenon, more than half of those older buyers are women.

``This is a generation that really refuses to let go of music,'' says John Sykes, president of video music channel VH1. ``There's this preconceived notion that once you graduate college you get married, have five kids and throw away the stereo. But they are getting married and putting a new CD player in the car.''

This is not to say that the USA's 78 million aging baby boomers are squeezing younger people out of the market. Today, dubbed ``Super Tuesday'' by the music industry because of all the CDs being issued, plenty of teens and twenty-somethings will flock to stores for releases by Jewel, Method Man and Ice Cube.

Still, factors ranging from where music is sold to how it's promoted have produced a fundamental change in buying habits in the $12 billion-a-year market for recordings.

The greatest share of purchases continues to be made by the young core of the music business -- people ages 15 to 19, according to data from the Recording Industry Association of America. That's been true since the association started tracking demographics in 1985 (and probably the case since rock 'n' roll began).

But the numbers also turn up an extraordinary change. Ten years ago, people 30 and older bought 32% of recordings. Now the older buyers account for 48% of purchases. Buyers 40 and up increased their share of the market to 25%, from 14% in 1988.

One reason is that music has become mass merchandise.

Consider that today's biggest release, a live album from country superstar Garth Brooks, is being launched with a live TV concert broadcast exclusively at Wal-Mart stores nationwide. Brooks' label expects 2 million people to show up at the stores, mainly families piloted by moms.

It's a smart location for an album promotion these days. Stores such as Best Buy, Kmart and Wal-Mart are bringing music to a lot more people than the mostly young male customers who frequent the strictly music shops. And experts say that's one reasons why adults, and women, buy.

``The mother is the gatekeeper of everybody's time . . . and the mother will bring the kids to watch Garth,'' says Pat Quigley, president of Brooks' label, Capitol Records/Nashville. ``She may even bring her husband.''

That's part of what has the industry thinking older. In addition, some labels are pulling '70s and '80s bands from the scrap heap. Boxed sets and expanded, remastered editions of classic albums are heading to shelves. And Internet sites, though they represented less than 1% of music sales last year, are offering a depth of selection that's designed to help time-strapped adults find what they want without leaving home.

The shift comes during a modest industry rebound after several years of flat sales. Shipments to retailers were up 6.8% in the first half of this year over the same period in 1997, the recording industry association says. Their value, measured by list price, was $5.8 billion, up 11.9%. If it continues, that could make 1998, if not a banner year, at least a success.

Women at the front of the line

What's interesting about today's older buyers is that they're not just a gray-haired replica either of today's youth market or the market that once jammed to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

For one, women lead sales. Among people 30 and older, women bought 52% of recordings sold in the first six months of the year, according to the association. That's the opposite of what's happening among younger buyers and buyers overall.

In fact, spurred by the Titanic soundtrack, women for the first time out-purchased men of all ages at the music store in 1997. Even though males regained the edge in the first six months of 1998, buying 52% of recordings, that event reflected the increasing importance of women in the music marketplace.

And women over 30 are widely considered one of the forces behind the popularity of country music and its most successful star, Brooks. Data show that women 30 and over devoted 21% of their purchases to country music in the first six months of the year, outdistancing rock (18%) and pop/easy listening (17%). Men over 30 spend most on rock (24%) and country (15%).

``Radio formats today in great measure are targeted to the coveted female consumer,'' says Kevin McCabe of the industry newspaper Radio & Records. ``Whether you're talking country, adult pop, smooth jazz or alternative, all of those formats have females in the mix, and I think that is what's getting more females into record stores.''

Some industry watchers say the male-female gap closed largely because of the music: the popularity of country, movie soundtracks and female singer-songwriters whose lyrics speak to women.

``Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette and Paula Cole are singing about emotions much deeper than, `He's so fine, I wish he were mine,' '' says Sharon Lesakowski, a 36-year-old mother of four from Buffalo, N.Y.

``Women are finally able to make their own kind of music and be respected for it,'' VH1's Sykes says. ``Other women are discovering this music because it's speaking to them directly.''

There's another way older buyers set themselves apart: their strength in niche markets. Men over 30 accounted for 53% of jazz purchases in the first six months of the year, the association says. Women bought 71% of children's recordings. Together, people over 30 bought three-fourths of gospel and classical recordings and two-thirds of pop/easy listening. For their part, teens and twentysomethings bought 89% of rap and 63% of rock.

``When you're a young person, your taste in music is very much tied to your self identity,'' says Gwen Lipsky, president of the entertainment consulting firm Sound Thinking. ``When you're an adult, your self-image is more solidified, and that tends to make people more experimental and interested in a wider variety of music.''

But even as their tastes change, their roots remain. These adults grew up on what has now become classic rock -- everything from James Brown to Jackson Browne -- and, in some ways, unlike previous generations, they've yet to abandon their musical pasts.

The result is that even though the stars fade away (or die), their albums keep selling. In the week ending Oct. 25, Bob Marley's greatest hits album Legend sold 9,100 copies, according to SoundScan. Bob Seger's Greatest Hits album sold 8,500. And Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon sold 7,700 copies.

Although that's nowhere near the 1 million copies that Brooks' label hopes his live album sells this week, it's still the kind of consistent sales that, as one record company executive said, some new artists would welcome.

The music industry also has been able to cash in as baby boomers converted their vinyl collections to CD.

``I just repurchased the entire Fleetwood Mac catalog,'' Lesakowski says. ``I also went out and bought some Eagles stuff and some Supertramp because who has a turntable anymore?''

``The CD has kept the baby boomer in the loop,'' says Jim Wagner, a senior vice president at Warner Brothers Records. ``They're restocking their collections, and that has really helped bring and keep an older demographic involved.''

As a result, many labels have launched catalog divisions to promote those older albums.

``Someone who's in their mid-40s may not be interested in the Spice Girls but is still interested in buying music,'' says Jeff Jones, senior vice president of Sony Music Legacy Recordings. His division releases boxed sets, reissues from the Epic and Columbia catalogs, and new projects by classic artists, such as the recent Bob Dylan Live 1966: ``The Royal Albert Hall'' Concert.

Rock 'n' roll careers reborn

That interest has even revived careers. CMC International, an Atlanta-based label, is making a business out of re-launching '70s and '80s acts such as Pat Benatar and Lynyrd Skynyrd. This year, CMC scored its first gold album with Return to Paradise by the reunited Styx.

``CMC would not exist today as a label if there was not an increased response from the 25-to-44 market in buying music products,'' company president Tom Lipsky says. After starting in 1993 with one album, CMC now has 24 artists on its roster and is affiliated with music powerhouse BMG Entertainment.

That's not to say baby boomers don't listen to newer artists. They do. Karen Moriarity, a 49-year-old network technician for a computer firm in San Francisco, recently discovered Generation X rockers Third Eye Blind.

``I caught them on VH1, and I find their music and their style to be very interesting,'' Moriarity says. ``They're sort of the bad boys of rock, reminding me of the Stones.''

For their part, retailers are adding depth to the selections on the CD racks, recognizing that older buyers who long for a title from their youth may want it and nothing else.

A trickier component is anticipating when an artist will experience a resurgence in popularity, often prompted by the release of a comeback or reunion album. For example, when Fleetwood Mac released its reunion album, The Dance, last year, sales of its classic Rumours went from selling about 4,000 copies a week to as many as 32,000.

The lesson: Like the attachments people develop for, say, a certain brand of peanut butter or specific styles of clothing, the music people use as the soundtrack to their lives tends to stay constant. And that means they'll keep buying it.

``I've always believed in the Pied Piper,'' says Russ Solomon, the owner and founder of retailer Tower Records. ``If you get kids buying records, they'll hold onto that for a long period of time.''


Today is the record industry's ``Super Tuesday.'' Among the major albums being released today:

Garth Brooks, Garth Double Live: The country superstar's label hopes to sell 1 million copies this week.

Mariah Carey, #1's: Greatest-hits package with two current duets, including When You Believe with fellow diva

Whitney Houston.

Whitney Houston, My Love Is Your Love: First studio album in eight years; also includes Mariah Carey duet.

Ice Cube, War and Peace, Vol. 1 (The War Disc): West Coast gangsta-rap pioneer's first in five years.

Jewel, Spirit: Second album by the singer-poet idol.

Method Man, Tical 2000: Judgment Day: Second solo album from Wu-Tang
Clan rap titan.

Seal, Human Being: Third album from the pop balladeer.

Thanks to Barbara II for posting this to the Ledge and to Anusha for formatting and sending it to us.