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1990s

Only 415 pages left on your journey to becoming a rock star!

After the second half of the 1980s had been dominated by commercial pop and cheap dance acts, the 1990s started highly promising.

AC/DC’s The Razor’s Edge, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Metallica’s Black Album, Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I & II, and U2’s Achtung Baby marked the return of great handmade music and greatly produced albums. 

But the positive momentum rapidly vanished, and the 1990s will finally be remembered for teen pop, dance, techno, boy bands and girl groups, as well as for vocal driven songs.

If we take a look at the numbers from the Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 500 once more, then we’ll see another drop from 11.4% to only 4.4%, which means that music quality again went down, this time by a factor of about 2.6 within only 10 years, which is even worse than the previous drop in the 80s.

But things are even worse, because not only the total number of insanely great songs went down, the 1990s also lack the huge amount of simply “good songs” we still had a decade earlier.

By the end of the 1990s, music quality had dropped by a factor of 6.4 over 20 years, or even 9.3 over 30 years.

Those are disastrous numbers for both music lovers and for the entire industry.

The most important innovative trends in the early 1990s were grunge and britpop, which lead to the mainstream success of alternative rock and indie music, plus Metallica’s Black Album, which allowed heavy metal to become widely popular.

Indie music, alternative rock, and grunge achieved mainstream success, with artists such as Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul Asylum, R.E.M., Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine, Green Day, The Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Beck, Foo Fighters, Stone Temple Pilots, Blink-182, Garbage, Pearl Jam, and many others. 

At the same time there was a revival of the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s headed by Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, and Sheryl Crow for example. In the UK britpop bands such as Oasis, Blur, Suede, Pulp, Manic Street Preachers, and The Verve became very successful.

But the positive trends quickly lost momentum in the second half of the 1990s.

One of the problems of alternative rock was that it didn’t produce a high number of radio compatible hits, which left an empty space in the charts that could quickly be filled up by teen pop, dance-pop, house, techno, eurodance, europop, and low end hip hop.

In the end entertainers such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, The Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Hanson, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, and Destiny’s Child dominated the decade, following the trend to use professional producers writing songs for dummy artists.

The music industry finally managed to fill up the rest of the charts with cost-effective commercial acts – in Europe those were usually clowns such as Alexia, Haddaway, Captain Jack, Captain Hollywood Project, Basic Element, Solid Base, Daze, Gigi D’Agostino, Vengaboys, 2 Unlimited, Cappella, Corona, Culture Beat, DJ Bobo, Dr. Alban, Ice MC, La Bouche, Twenty 4 Seven, Fun Factory, Masterboy, Mr. President, Pandora, Magic Affair, Maxx, Loft, Sash!, Snap!, Real McCoy, Scatman John, and Whigfield for example.

The list is almost endless – if you’re old enough, then you will probably remember all of that cheap crap that was really hard to avoid. If you’re young and you don’t know all of those jerks listed above, then you’re probably quite lucky.

But not all electronic music was bad of course, and some very innovative electronic albums were released in the 1990s. Nine Inch Nails and The Prodigy experimented with new sounds and technologies, and in 1998 Madonna released Ray of Light, which has sold over 16 million copies worldwide.

The hip hop trend of the late 1980s continued, with N.W.A., 2Pac, Jay Z, Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Cypress Hill, Eminem, Lauryn Hill, Outkast, and others being very successful and gangsta rap becoming mainstream compatible.

In the end the 1990s were the decade record companies executed what they had learned in the late 1980s.

The labels had learned that they could survive and remain profitable without having to rely on real artists, and it seemed that reducing quality and production costs on all levels would have no impact on sales numbers at all.

A huge mistake that would lead to a big collapse very soon.

Technology

Most professional recording studios had upgraded to computer controlled mixing consoles such as the Solid State Logic SL4000. Motorized faders and Total Recall (the possibility to save the entire settings of an analog console) also became popular.

Computers, MIDI, and sequencing software were omnipresent, while computer based audio recording and editing started to become popular, even if the new digital technology didn’t replace analog 2" tapes yet. Computers were still too slow and hard drives were too small to replace bigger tape machines.

Most artists now had the possibility to record at least their demos at home, using cheap analog multitrack recorders and MIDI sequencers that finally evolved into somewhat usable DAWs during the second half of the decade.

Synthesizers had greatly evolved over the past few years, and samplers had become much more powerful, while cheap electronic drums had mostly vanished. All of this resulted in a much warmer and better sound in mainstream music of the 1990s when compared to the cold sounding music of the 1980s.

On the consumer side, CDs were highly popular, music cassettes became a niche product, and vinyl almost completely disappeared.

Digital downloads were not yet important – there already were websites that allowed to illegally download music in the mid and late 1990s, but the major record companies did not manage to create a global platform that would allow people to legally purchase music.

The result was that illegal downloads became more and more popular throughout the end of the decade, although it was still a niche phenomenon (simply copying CDs using PCs was still much more popular at the time).

In the late 1990s music sales topped, and by the end of the decade people in the US were willing to spend $71.- for music a year for example. The fact that people were still willing to pay a lot of money despite the fact the record companies produced mostly crap led to the false belief that things would go on like this forever.

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Chapter 3.5   •   Page 1 of 19

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