The biggest debut of 2012 doesn’t belong to a glossy pop act like One Direction or Justin Bieber.
Sure, those boys have hordes of teenage girls ready to download their music at the drop of a tweet, but they’ve got nothing on the scruffy gents of Mumford & Sons, whose new disc, Babel sold 600,000 copies in its first seven days. (The next-best opening? Bieber’s Believe, with 374,000 in week 1.)
Babel‘s success (it has now led the chart for three weeks and sold 865,000 copies total) is indicative of a larger shift within the music industry. As pop music morphs into a glow-stick dance party, country acts have adopted the traditional pop sound. That leaves Mumford and the burgeoning Americana and folk genres (think acoustic guitars, banjos, and innumerable fitted tweed vests) to fill the country void. Did you get all that? Allow us to break it down.
POP MUSIC HAS A “HOUSE” PARTY
“This is the most dance-heavy I have seen the station in the last 10 years,” says Julie Pilat, the music director at L.A.’s KIIS FM, the most popular Top 40 radio station in the country. Indeed, radio airplay in 2012 has been dominated by tracks like Rihanna‘s “We Found Love” and Ellie Goulding‘s “Lights,” which are deeply influenced by electronic dance music (EDM). And a quick glance at the top tier of iTunes’ singles chart reveals the widespread allure of techno thumpers like Ke$ha‘s “Die Young,” as well as Korean rapper PSY‘s “Gangnam Style,” the synthy novelty hit that has spawned an international galloping dance craze.
“We are determined to invest in EDM,” says Chris Anokute, senior VP of A&R at Island Def Jam, who has worked with both Rihanna and Katy Perry. He points to the success of top-billed DJs like David Guetta and Calvin Harris (the producer behind “We Found Love,” which has been downloaded 6 million times) as signs that mainstream audiences are embracing an electronic sound. And the appeal is quite simple, he says. “DJs know how to make beats.”
With album sales for deadmau5‘s Album Title Goes Here reaching a career-high 58,000 in the first week, it’s becoming increasingly clear to execs like Anokute that “DJs are becoming rock stars in their own realm.” And stars like Madonna are noticing, too. She recently asked rave-ready spin-master Avicii to open for her in front of 70,000 fans at Yankee Stadium.
COUNTRY HOPS TO POP
Over in Nashville, there’s a different makeover under way—most likely in response to the gigantic crossover success of Taylor Swift. The lovesick starlet has always blurred the line between poppy country and countrified pop, but when she unveiled her recent singles “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble,” there was no denying it: This was a full-on pop album. “Country radio has been a little taken aback,” admits Swift’s label head, Scott Borchetta, President of Big Machine Records. (“Never Ever”—co-produced by Max Martin, the Swedish mastermind who most often works with Britney Spears—hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 but stalled at 13 on the country chart.)
Swift’s foray into the pop world is increasingly typical these days. Lady Antebellum and Luke Bryan specialize in adult contemporary-leaning pop-rock; even The Band Perry’s gothic “If I Die Young” earned a second life on mainstream radio. There’s nothing ostensibly “country” about Hunter Hayes‘ No. 1 hit “Wanted” or anything on Jake Owen‘s new Endless Summer EP — except their Southern accents. All Kelly Clarkson had to do to receive a CMA Award nomination for female vocalist of the year was release a remixed version of “Mr. Know It All” to country radio.
“This format always does the best,” says Borchetta, “when it serves the most sounds sonically.” That’s why country music is, increasingly, host to the drum machine beats and electric guitars that sound suddenly out of place on pop (and mostly defunct rock) radio. While purists may balk at the rising technological flourishes within the format, Borchetta sees it as inevitable. “You hate to think that that part of the art might be dying, but the reality is, anyone with a Mac can sit down and create a finished song.”
AMERICANA HELPS COUNTRY KEEP IT REAL
The heavily produced drum-and-electric-guitar sound of current country music has not gone unnoticed. “It’s only [considered country] because you put a cowboy hat on a pop artist, put them in front of a tractor, and took a photograph,” says Seth Avett, a member of the North Carolina-bred banjo-plucking troupe The Avett Brothers, who recently scored a No. 4 debut with their seventh studio album, The Carpenter, which sold 98,000 copies in its first week.
No wonder many country fans are drawn to the Americana movement—one marked by rootsy natural instrumentation and quasi-religious lyrics. Led by the London lads of Mumford & Sons—whose surprise blockbuster debut, 2010′s Sigh No More, sold 2.5 million copies—the booming genre now boasts folky acoustic acts like the Avett Brothers, The Lumineers, and The Civil Wars. The Civil Wars’ Barton Hollow was recently certified gold, and the Lumineers’ self-titled debut has already surpassed 350,000 copies — two rather remarkable feats considering neither act has a true mainstream hit, though they both receive heavy airplay on the influential AAA (Adult Album Alternative) radio format. Americana artists are able to sell full albums much more easily than single-shilling pop stars like Carly Rae Jepsen, who moved 5.9 million downloads of “Call Me Maybe,” but only 41,000 units of Kiss in its first week.
As such, the music industry is quickly adjusting to the rise of folky Americana sounds (not to mention Americana aesthetics — country-chic barnyard weddings seem to have become en vogue overnight). American Idol skipped pop balladry and gave its latest winner Phillip Phillips the Mumford-esque strummer “Home” as a coronation song. It has since become a double-platinum smash that was highlighted throughout NBC’s summer Olympics. And CMT has wholeheartedly embraced the genre, even debuting the Avetts’ video for “Live and Die” last month.
“It’s been a couple of years since Mumford [broke through],” says Mike Kaplan, program director of The End, an alternative radio station in Seattle. “That folk-infused sound hasn’t stopped.” And once record companies wrap their minds around Babel‘s sales, it probably won’t for years to come.