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While still hugely popular, TRL should move now to protect its franchise by staying ahead of the curve and reasserting its role as tastemaker/ gatekeeper, rather than merely reflecting the already-entrenched tastes of the Carson-addicted hordes.
ON RECORDS: MTV IS SELLING RECORDS AGAIN
Rock, R&B, Dance, PoMo Hits Prove
It Ain’t Just A TRL World

By Lenny Beer & Jon O’Hara

A funny thing has been happening at MTV.

Thanks to the ad slump, which by now has impacted every corner of the media world (and nearly killed off the dot-com revolution entirely), the cable network has found itself with more time on its hands to play music. And thanks to the additional music hours, as well as some smart choices being made by MTV’s music programming department, many of the albums receiving exposure are breaking—and breaking outside of "Total Request Live," MTV’s omnipresent teenybopper franchise.

TRL, the very nexus of the Britney-fueled, Christina-charged, Backstreet and NSYNC-backed ascent of teenpop to unheard-of sales heights—the bubblegum bubble, if you will—is at a crossroads. The show must take a look around, adjust its formula and adapt if it is to remain the vanguard of cool for the kids that make up its audience—the very record buyers who make exposure on TRL and MTV as a whole so valuable.

That audience, whose massive numbers have helped make this wave of teenpop the windfall it has been, is maturing. And that means the individuals who make up its ranks are learning to assert themselves and will be experimenting with many things—not the least of which are new sounds and pop-cultural flavors.

NSYNC, arguably the most nimble of the boy bands, seems to have sensed this (they’re growing up themselves, after all) and infused "Celebrity" (Jive)—which sold nearly 2 million first-week but has since settled to a less mind-boggling sales level—with a more challenging Urban feel than the group’s previous work.

Even Carson Daly—TRL’s hugely popular host since its inception in 1998—is finding other fish to fry, signing on last week to follow in the footsteps of Bob Costas and Greg Kinnear and host a resuscitated version of "Later," NBC’s late-night talk show. In other words, this edition of the teenpop niche was a helluva ride, but the writing’s on the wall—it’s time to move on.

And the evidence is mounting, thanks to MTV’s increased video programming, that music outside the teenpop profile is connecting with viewers in a big way (as well-crafted, truly mass-appeal product tends to do) and is driving major record sales. A handful of examples:

  • Alicia Keys’ "Fallin’" (J Records) ascended to MTV’s coveted Buzzworthy.com status a month before her album’s June 26 release, becoming a staple video for the channel. Songs in A Minor sold nearly 240k in its first sales week and has maintained that pace, selling an astounding 1.6 million copies after seven weeks (four of them at #1).
  • Canadian skatepunks Sum 41 (Island/IDJ) were the lucky recipients of early MTV support for their first single/video "Fat Lip" in late March, which helped break the track at radio. When the quartet’s album was finally released on May 8, it sold 49k in its first week, ramping up steadily after that, to 727k total after 13 weeks.
  • Others who have benefited recently from MTV play—all of them Buzzworthy—include experimental hip-hop/anime combo Gorillaz (Parlophone/Virgin), nu-metal mongers Drowning Pool (Wind-up) and British dance import Craig David (Wildstar/Atlantic).
  • Quirk-rockers Cake saw their debut Columbia single, "Short Skirt/Long Jacket," deemed a "Breakthrough Video" in early July (the documentary-style clip, cut into several city-specific versions, captures various man-on-the-street reviews of the song). Their new album, "Comfort Eagle," has sold a brisk 180k since its July 24 release.
  • Perhaps the most dramatic example in recent memory is Alien Ant Farm’s off-the-wall cover of Michael Jackson’s "Smooth Criminal." When New Noize/DreamWorks released "Anthology" in March, the album sold 13k in its first week. When MTV added the "Smooth Criminal" video in late June and honored it with Buzzworthy.com status, sales were at about 10k per week. By July 15, sales had risen to 35k. Recently, the album has been selling over 90k per week and has now done more than 550k total.

Rock. R&B. Dance. PoMo. TRL, in continuing its teenpop focus, is missing an opportunity to help its audience get where they’re going anyway—into new and more wide-ranging sounds that will make up pop music’s next breakthroughs.

While still hugely popular, TRL should move now to protect its franchise by staying ahead of the curve and reasserting its role as tastemaker/gatekeeper, rather than merely reflecting the already-entrenched tastes of the Carson-addicted hordes.

Of course, we’re not suggesting that TRL change its name to "Total Whatever-We-Choose-To-Shove-Down-Your-Throat Live," but subtle adjustments in the filtering of audience requests and the types of editorial pieces aired could have the effect of making the show more appealing to viewers seeking something more sophisticated—and potentially broaden its overall audience long-term. TRL, like MTV as a whole, is capable of having a hand in shaping the next wave (or waves) of mass-appeal music. This is a classic case of "use it or lose it."

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