Elvis Presley and the Two Recorded Music Industries
Today marks 40 years since the passing of Elvis Presley. Whilst ‘The King’s’ emergence has come to represent a cultural year zero for the music industry, his icon status in recent years has taken a hit. Whilst his estate still drew $27 million in 2016, in May this year The Guardian ran an article on the dwindling value of Elvis merchandise, suggesting that much of Presley’s fan base was dying out and not being replaced by new audiences. For a figure never far from the popular conscious since the 1950s, this has been a difficult thought to process, yet one that makes sense when we consider the break with the past we are seeing in the music industry.
Legacy formats and streaming are almost different industries: If we look towards the previous pillars of success in music (chart positions and physical sales) Presley remains a force to be reckoned with. Whilst Elvis is still very successful in this sphere — his 2016 compilation album 'The Wonder of You' going to number one in the UK and selling 1.6m albums worldwide, metrics gauging streaming success indicate he is falling behind other artists. However, it was back in 2002 that Dutch DJ Junkie XL’s electronica remix of ‘A Little Less Conversation’ gave Presley his most recent dose of heavy mainstream radio play and the accompanying high chart positions across Europe. Indeed, the last time Elvis appeared in the UK singles charts was 12 years ago, following re-issues of Love Me Tender amongst others that were likely propelled in the charts by the merchandise factor, meaning original fans of Elvis would buy the physical copies as collectables and perhaps seldom play them. In an increasingly post-sales world based more on continual engagement with music rather than one-off sales, this model is less effective.
Streaming is not as kind to Elvis: In 2016, Elvis’s songs clocked 382 million streams on Spotify — a respectable play count, but one that pales in comparison to David Bowie and Michael Jackson (600 million+) and The Beatles (1.3 billion). Additionally, Elvis’s popularity on YouTube is a further indictment of his seemingly less visceral impact of younger audiences.
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Why this is the case could be an entire sociological study. Even as Rock music dwindled from its 60s/70s zenith in direct cultural influence, hugely successful Rock bands from the 90s and 00s meant the original King of Rock n’ Roll was never far from public consciousness. However, with the lack of Rock acts in the charts (Arctic Monkeys, Royal Blood and The 1975 remain exceptions to the rule) and with the closing of live music venues in favour of club nights (easier and cheaper to put on DJs than bands), less bands have the chance to set young people on a path towards Elvis. Additionally, if we look at the most streamed artists on Spotify presently, such as Drake, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd and Sia, Elvis’s direct influence is relatively scant whilst the music of artists such as Michael Jackson, Prince and David Bowie continue to have a direct influence, both in visual and musical style, on modern releases. This gives a reference point for younger audiences that engenders these legacy artists’ future fanbases. In this respect, Presley is likely to continue to struggle.
This is not to say Elvis is finished as a cultural force (the quiff made a comeback in the recent years), or that future audiences will not discover The King’s music. Indeed, as the influence of mass media declines and we see less unified cultural movements and more dedicated niches, he will surely retain a fan base. However, what is increasingly clear is that a stark divide is growing between those that still consume legacy formats and the brave new world of streaming. This distinction is exemplified by TV host Bradley Walsh’s debut album outselling the release from former One Direction member Zayn Malik, in the UK this year. In a streaming world heavily geared towards R&B, Hip-Hop and Dance music, perhaps Elvis appears a relic of a bygone era, personifying anachronistic values and social behaviours. Maybe that’s where he will remain.