Record Labels, the Super Bowl and Consumer Change

By Richard Menta 2/08/11

A little before noon on Super Bowl Sunday I passed by a local watering hole that I knew served good food and decided to have lunch. The game wasn't until evening so the parking lot was fairly empty, a far cry from the crowd I knew would pack the place that night. I went in, took a seat at the bar, ordered food and a draught and started a conversation with the barkeep. Joining us was a waitress who was still waiting for her first customers to take a table.

"Calm before the storm?" I asked the waitress, presuming a hectic day for her. "What do you mean?" she replied. I told her I meant when this place would fill up with people for the game and her day would be a blur of plates and drink orders.

Now it has been well over a decade since I last watched the big game in a crowded bar, this bar actually. I remember it was standing room only at a time when people could still fill such a place with cigarette smoke and I decided back then to leave such events to the chubby guys in team jerseys. So it caught me by considerable surprise when the waitress told me Super Bowl Sunday was a dead day for the place.

Richard Menta

"It's going to be a slow night tonight", chimed the bartender. "It will be slow all day".

"Wait a minute" I asked him. "Isn't this one of the busiest days of the year for a tavern!"

"It used to be", he replied. Now everone has Super Bowl parties instead".

That night from my home as I watched a less-than-impressive half time show by the Black Eyed Peas I thought about this change in consumer habit the folk at the bar alerted me to. I never was one to hang out at bars and so I missed the gradual shift townie bar regulars made from watching the game in public to watching it at the homes of friends. The Big Game was once a big revenue day for these local businesses. Now, it draws people away. It's the hospitality industry's loss.

I am probably wrong, but as far as I can tell it was nothing that the bars or even the NFL did to elicit this change; a shift where people now spend the day with people they know as opposed to people they mostly don't know. Tastes change, styles change, and how the average person spends an average day evolves too. Men simply don't attend the picture shows in jacket and tie anymore. As sports fanatacism has risen in this country should it be all that surprising that many Super Bowl patrons now choose to bring a $6 six-pack to the house of friends rather than shell out $4 a glass at the pub.

As a hazard of my writing for these pages I naturally have to see how the fluidity of any consumer activity might apply to the malaise the major record labels presently face. Fluid is the key word here. The demise of EMI and the collapse of record chains nationwide punctuate an industry that for years assumed they had ultimate control of their space. For a long time this control meant mandates on how people would consume music, where they could consume it, and how much it would cost them.

The Internet, the digital music portable, and the mobile phone changed that irreparably and the industry was not able to adjust. Actually, it did everything but try to adjust and blaming it all on that consumer activity known as file sharing obfuscated a shift that is far more complex and still evolving. As I pointed out four years ago in the article "Record Industry Woes Aggravated by Years of Bad PR" the consumer-hostile reaction of the major labels to disruptive technologies probably did more to drive the paying customer away than the technologies themselves.

Such a position is endlessly debateable, but what the Super Bowl example above illustrates is that changes in consumer habits happen not just through great schisms in technology, but through organic processes as well. Teenagers felt that meeting your best girl at the malt shop and dancing to the record machine was an anachronism by the 1970's. Today's twenty-somethings feel the same about building that rack system. Contemporary iPod-toting teens will never be able to fathom why anyone in their right mind would want to trudge around the city with a heavy, 8 D-battery, boombox riding on their shoulder.

The perception of many music fans is that the big labels are an anachronism in their own right. Maybe that is the biggest change.