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I pay some attention to pop music, so I was surprised to read this January in one of America’s major daily newspapers—you can guess which one—that “rap and other varieties of hip-hop are now the most popular music in America, outselling rock and country and classical.” Well, not that surprised. Similar claims for the commercial dominance of hiphop—and, for that matter, teenypop—have been made in publications both mainstream and somewhat less so (this one, for example). Usually, however, they’re hedged a bit.

This one wasn’t, which means it can now be evaluated against the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) annual “consumer profile,” which the organization midyear. (This year, for the first time, it’s posted on www.riaa.com.)

So does rap/hiphop (as the RIAA classifies it) outsell classical? Never mind—we already knew the answer to that one. How about country? In fact, the two tied last year, each at 10.8 percent of music purchases. (This is mostly because country slumped in 1999; the year before, it was 4 points up.) And rock? Not quite. Of the music sold last year, 25.2 percent was rock—the genre’s worst showing of the ’90s, but still almost 15 points ahead of the closest competition.

These figures come from a telephone/Internet poll conducted annually by Hart Research. According to the RIAA, the data are reliable plus or minus 2.2 percent at a 95 percent confidence level. Only statisticians know exactly what that means, but I suppose you shouldn’t use these figures to place bar bets on the popularity of New Age (0.5 percent) versus children’s (0.4 percent) recordings.

Note also that the polling company does not classify music, so fuzzy distinctions—between country-rock and rock, say, or ska-punk, which is presumably rock, and ska, which is included in “R&B/Urban”—are made by the participants. If I decide that the new recording of John Cage’s The Seasons is gospel music, the pollers won’t question me.

Nonetheless, the profile does offer a general outline of who’s buying what music. Which raises the question: Why do mainstream-media commentators on pop culture so often get it wrong?

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Much of the problem, I think, can be attributed to Top 10-ism. Since USA Today started pulling such numbers from the trade publications, the mass media have become obsessed with what’s selling, whether it’s Britney Spears or Harry Potter. This syndrome was given a big boost by the introduction of SoundScan, which transformed the Billboard 200 from a work of, uh, art into a sales chart. Mainstream journalists often read the Billboard charts the way many people read newspapers: They just check the headlines. Thus they miss long-term trends, including albums that sell millions of copies without ever hitting the Top 10 and music that is influential, meaningful, or simply good despite never going gold (or multiplatinum).

Also, many mainstream hacks assume that music is most important to kids and that, therefore, music that sells to kids is most important. Because one of their concerns is that their readership consists mainly of older folks, editors and reporters in their 40s and 50s (and even 20s and 30s) overcompensate by inflating the significance of boy bands, gangsta rappers, and other echo-boomer favorites.

Which brings us to the most interesting statistic in the RIAA 1999 profile. Despite the absolute necessity for members of a certain demographic niche to own the latest ‘N Sync album, the kids are not driving the music biz. Last year, the members of all but one age bracket between 10 and 39 bought less music than in 1998. (The exception, ages 20 to 24, was up a paltry 0.4 percent.) So how did music sales rise almost $1 billion last year? Higher prices, of course, but mostly because of the efforts of the demographically near-dead: people between the ages of 40 and oblivion.

The 40-44 group increased its share of the market from 8.3 percent to 9.3 percent, and the 45 and older bracket grew from 18.1 percent to 24.7 percent, a 122 percent increase over its 1990 position. Oops, they did it again: The boomers who created the modern music industry continue to support its growth, even though the big record companies just want them to go away. Why hasn’t this been clear all along? Because it’s harder to channel adults than kids. The over-40s buy new music and old, classic rock and world beat, electronic and classical, light jazz and hard rock. Some of them probably even bought The Marshall Mathers LP—and not for their kids.

Of course, the Britney era will end. The music companies that decided to pursue a mass-market, teen-oriented, marketing-driven strategy will reconsider. The label of the future may not be Jive, the British outfit that discovered both the fountain of youth and the city of gold somewhere between Orlando and Stockholm, but Nonesuch, which has expanded from cheap classics and world music to a complex crossover strategy that includes the Kronos Quartet, Cheikh Lo, and new acquisition Emmylou Harris. You won’t find any of those acts in the Top 10, but then studying the top of the Billboard charts is even less instructive than analyzing Variety’s weekend box-office grosses.

One of this column’s recurring themes is that no one genre or audience does or can dominate pop music, which has been fragmenting for more than three decades. Still, keep your eyes on the over-40s. The little girls don’t understand, but the grown-ups are keeping things interesting. —Mark Jenkins

Find a complete collection of What Goes On columns on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.