Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Shakedown Artistes

The National Football League's ideas about music have always been a trifle old-fashioned, so it's not a surprise that the league's exploratory foray into the music industry should come from a bygone era, the inglory days of the Mob's role in the business in the 1940s and 1950s.

As reported by "The Wall Street Journal," the NFL has narrowed down the possible performers for the Super Bowl halftime show next February to three, Rihanna, Katy Perry and Coldplay. It's all up to which of these popular acts is most willing to give the league a share of the receipts from their next concert tour for the privilege of performing a 12 minute show before what the league assures them is an audience of hundreds of millions.

I'm sure this is legal, as most everything is in the music business, but it sure smells like extortion. One wonders what'd happen if the average nightclub owner tried the same thing.

Unhip and proud of it, the NFL's little power play rests on a vision of the music business that's been out of date since, oh, 2002 at the latest. Back in the 20th century day, the league could've made big stars pay to play halftime without the stars even knowing they did. It'd all have been quietly arranged between the NFL and the stars' record companies.

But the Internet came along, and in this day and age, concert ticket sales have replaced sound recording royalties and sales as the primary revenue stream for star pop musicians. This makes those musicians work harder, but it also gives them a more direct connection to their dough. That is to say, the big stars in question are very likely to see the NFL's proposal as the racket it is.

Rihanna, Perry and Coldplay would have to be prize chumps to do anything but jointly tell the NFL to pound sand. They're being asked to turn over real money for the illusion of mass marketing. In short, they are being asked to purchase a Super Bowl ad they don't need.

Appearing at halftime will not help any of the three performers sell more tickets and downloads or acquire more lucrative corporate tie-ins. The TV audience for the Super Bowl GAME may be in the hundreds of millions, but come halftime, it fragments like the rest of the media universe. Viewers who are either fans of a specific performer or seriously into pop music in general watch the mini-concert. The rest tend to be eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, arguing about the first half or just plain socializing. It's the one part of a Super Bowl party that's free time.

Let's take a typical viewer we'll call me. By all accounts Bruno Mars gave an excellent performance at the last Super Bowl. I never heard a note. Halftime was when the gracious host of the party I attended brought out the pulled pork, cole slaw, potato salad and cornbread. The sound of clattering cutlery drowned out Mars, and so what? I like music, but not as much as I like dinner.

So the people who saw Mars and actually paid attention fall into the subset of consumers who were already more likely to go to his concerts and download his songs than other folks. He was singing to the music fan choir. As a Super Bowl ad, a halftime performance is a worse investment than a real ad.

Arrogant and proud of it, the NFL has come to the mistaken assumption the big name performers of its halftime show need it more than they need them. Never strong on its own history, the league has forgotten just why it started putting them on the midfield stage in the first place, something that began only 20 years ago.

The music superstar Super Bowl halftime show did not truly begin until Super Bowl XXVII in 1993, when Michael Jackson performed at the Rose Bowl. Before that, big names sang the National Anthem, and halftime shows tended to be song and dance pastiches or the likes of Up With People and college marching bands. The NFL thought Up With People and college marching bands were perfect cultural fits, and given its druthers doubtless would still trot them out there. The big names were brought in because the league had a problem on its hands, a potential money-losing problem.

The problem had two causes. One was the dismal succession of Super Bowl routs of the 1980s and early '90s caused by the dominance of the NFC in that era. This in turn led TV networks to counterprogram the Bowl, scheduling programs designed to attract non-football fans to begin roughly at halftime, betting on a drain of casual viewers of the game due to its noncompetitive nature.

The bet worked. Nothing makes the NFL move faster than a threat to ratings, so the league responded by soliciting Jackson to perform, which in turn worked well enough to lead to the big star mini-concert becoming a regular Super Bowl feature. If the big stars tended to be a decade or more past their prime, well, as I said, unhip and proud.

The league's gotten spoiled lately. Since roughly 1995, most Super Bowls have been competitive well past halftime, and a good number have been genuine thrillers. This may have led the NFL to conclude that the halftime show has become a favor it does the music business, and should become a billable 12 minutes instead.

An exciting football game is never an inevitability. Super Bowl XLVIII was not competitive. It was over by halftime, over from the start, really, and had AMC had the nerve to put, oh, the series finale of "Breaking Bad" on at halftime, they'd have done well, very well.

Whomever looks after the business interests of Rihanna, Perry and Coldplay is advised to study this little chapter of pro football history, and then to send the NFL direct to voice mail. Let the league see if Up With People is still around. It's the halftime show the league deserves.


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