1982 In Review: Who Won, Who Lost

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1982 was a bad year for the music business. Sales were off twenty-five to fifty percent, depending on whom you spoke to. The number of records certified gold (for sales of 500,000) or platinum (for sales of 1 million) dropped fifteen percent, from 247 in 1981 to 210 in 1982. The year’s two top-selling albums, John Cougar’s American Fool and Asia’s debut LP, each sold about 3 million copies – not even half as many as REO Speedwagon’s Hi-Infidelity sold in 1981. New releases from some of the industry’s most commercially dependable artists flopped, and record companies were driven into financial upheaval.

Nevertheless, 1982 was a watershed year, a year that witnessed the introduction and flowering of new outlets for new music. Television, adventurous radio formats and dance clubs helped bolster many unknown bands into considerable success, as consumers responded to the acts’ exposure and bought their records. The listing that follows is not an artistic one: it is an account of those who won and lost in 1982 where it counted the most – on the bottom line.

In only its second full year of operation, Warner Amex’ cable channel, MTV (full name: Music Television), tripled its subscriber base from close to 3 million to 9 million and cracked such major markets as New York, San Francisco, Boston, Cleveland and San Diego. “We’ve made television an effective medium to expose new music,” says John Sykes, MTV’s director of programming. “That’s something conventional television could never do.” As a result, MTV is hoping to recoup all of its considerable start-up money and go into the black this year.

Retailers are quick to cite MTV’s positive effect on business. “It’s making a real dent,” says Steve Wilson of Kief’s record store in Lawrence, Kansas. “We’re definitely selling out artists who otherwise would be shelf death: Duran Duran, ABC, Saga.” What’s more significant, though, is that MTV has played a major role in boosting the Stray Cats and Men at Work (both winners themselves) to the top of the charts.

Many, both inside and outside the industry, have criticized MTV’s apparent unwillingness to play black music. Sykes, however, points to videos by such artists as Musical Youth, Prince and the Bus Boys to refute that accusation and states that the channel’s commitment is to a rock audience. “Much as I dislike it,” admits Wilson, “it’s less of a straitjacket than AOR.”

Loser: Record Companies

Battered by a slumping national economy, videogames, blockbuster films, home taping and a multitude of other problems, record companies really took it on the chin in 1982. CBS was forced to lay off 300 employees in the midst of its worst year ever, a year so bad that network-news budgets had to be trimmed to compensate. Two small labels, Alfa and Stiff USA, terminated their American outlets. And Chrysalis (whose logo is pictured above) and Elektra/Asylum (E/A) both closed their Los Angeles headquarters and moved to New York, after major firings and executive reshufflings.

Winner: Technopop

MTV and the increasingly popular dance clubs helped songs like Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” (at forty-three weeks, the longest-lasting single in the history of the Billboard Top 100) achieve their surprising success. Those songs paved the way for a seemingly endless influx of English synthesizer bands, as techno-pop became the first dance-oriented sound since the advent of disco to find favor with a largely white rock & roll audience. Among other groups that enjoyed substantial commercial breakthroughs were Duran Duran, Adam Ant, Haircut One Hundred (above) and, most startlingly, A Flock of Seagulls, who turned a quick two-week tour into a six-month stay in the States and wound up with a gold record. “We used dance-club play to get AOR airplay,” says Arista president Clive Davis. “It helped that Flock used guitars and a real drum sound. But the barriers are coming down; these groups were in the forefront and broke through the barriers.”

Loser: California rock

The smooth-as-glass soft-rock sound that reaped sizable profits throughout the Seventies came a cropper in 1982. Get Closer by Linda Ronstadt (above) went gold – a surprising feat, since it never cracked the Top Thirty – but was nevertheless a far cry from her platinum successes of old. “It was disappointing but not surprising,” says Mike Wyner, chief record buyer for the forty-four stores in the Record World-TSS chain. “She’s not an original talent, and her sales have been declining.” The Envoy by Warren Zevon sold even fewer copies than Ronstadt’s LP, and while solo albums from Glenn Frey and Don Henley have been picking up steam, their sales were below expectations.

Stiff of the year, even in this competitive category, had to be the soundtrack to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The movie got some critical acclaim and did well at the box office. But the two-disc LP, which features new songs by Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh, Billy Squier, Don Henley and the Go-Go’s, to name but a few, died on the vine (even though Browne’s track, “Somebody’s Baby,” was a hit single). “I’m at a loss to explain it,” says Kief’s Steve Wilson, whose store serves many college students. “They just didn’t want to part with their money for it.” Wyner blames the record’s failure on its hefty $ 15.98 price tag. “The ticket was very steep. And by the time Elektra/Asylum got around to reducing the price [to $ 12.98], the record had run its course.”

Winner: Geffen Records

For sheer profitability, no label could come close to Geffen in 1982. The debut LP from Asia was the year’s biggest success (along with John Cougar’s American Fool), selling more than 2 million; the soundtrack to the Broadway musical Dreamgirls climbed higher on the charts than any such recording in nearly a decade; Quarterflash, a previously unheard-of band from the Pacific Northwest, went platinum. Love him or hate him, Geffen’s at the top for now.

Loser: Elektra/Asylum

In 1982, this label saw the failure of Queen’s Hot Space (“A monumental flop,” says one retailer. “A total stiff”), Fast Times and LPs by Frey, Henley and Ronstadt; was disappointed by the barely platinum performance of exercise guru Richard Simmons’ LP, Reach! (“E/A tried to sell me a crapload of that,” says Steve Wilson. “They sure misread the market”); was unable to break through with such critically well-received acts as Josie Cotton and X; watched as Joni Mitchell bolted to Geffen with her just-completed LP; and went through half the year without a senior vice-president of A & R (the company recently hired producer Tom Werman). “This year was so rotten,” says one label exec.

Winner: New Sounds from Old Performers

A surprising fusion of pop, salsa and an uptown attitude made Night and Day the biggest seller ever for Joe Jackson (above). A fiery Eddie Van Halen solo and some crack work from the Epic promotion staff got Michael Jackson on AOR with “Beat It.” The Clash put some in spirited touring to support their most commercial record ever, and as a result, Combat Rock has sold nearly a million copies. And Bruce Springsteen managed to sell 850,000 copies of a wholly acoustic, deeply depressing LP Nebraska.

Loser: The Live Album

In the late Seventies, live albums triggered successful careers for a passel of performers, including Cheap Trick, Bob Seger, REO Speedwagon and Peter Frampton. Those days are now gone, as live sets did poorly almost across the board. Such vinyl behemoths as the Rolling Stones met with uncharacteristic bad luck (Still Life didn’t even go gold), and Rod Stewart (above) and Ozzy Osbourne (“Outright stiffs, both of them,” says one retailer) discovered that not that many consumers were interested. Asks Tower Records president Russ Solomon: “In a market that’s a bit soft and sluggish, why do you need live albums?” Why, indeed.

Winner: KROQ/Los Angeles, WLIR/New York, KFOG/San Francisco

Straight AOR remained the dominant force in rock & roll radio, but the advent of some new formats portended a change in the wind. Biggest winner of the year was Rick Carroll’s KROQ in Los Angeles, which mixed New Wave with a heavy dose of teen-aimed novelty songs and gimmicks and wound up as the preeminent rock & roll station in the area. Radio consultant Lee Abrams repudiated his much imitated, much lamented “Superstars” format and designed a New Wave approach for Long Island’s WLIR, as well as a more offbeat AOR concoction at KFOG in San Francisco. Both stations enjoyed a dramatic increase in listenership, suggesting that radio may indeed enter the Eighties before long.

Loser: Blondie

Every group has a bad album now and then, but no one dropped a bomb like Blondie did in 1982. Despite a string of platinum successes, The Hunter failed to go gold–didn’t even come close–and the band’s subsequent tour was a nightmare of half-empty arenas and uninspired shows. The group then canceled its slated European and Japanese tours because of poor ticket sales. Their record label, Chrysalis, nearly went under. Finally, at year’s end, with rumors of a bust-up gaining intensity, one member of the band was served with a subpoena while performing at an L.A. club with a group called the Chequered Past. Now that’s a bad year.

Winner: The Who Who cares?

You apparently did, as the band took in about $40 million on its “final” U.S. tour, thanks to some huge concerts, a tour-support tie-in with Schlitz beer and a video deal with Twentieth Century-Fox. By the end of the road in Toronto, though, more than a few felt our English friends had somewhat overstayed their welcome.

Loser: Small clubs

The money crunch of the record companies and a slump in the economy hit the small music clubs especially hard, and some had to close their doors for good: My Father’s Place on Long Island and Los Angeles’ Whiskey a Go Go, to name just two. “The only places that are surviving are rooms big enough to pay acts more than they’re worth,” says Michael “Eppy” Epstein, proprietor of My Father’s Place. “There’s less talent around, and they’re getting more money.” And Epstein attributes the rise of the dance club to a confluence of economic and cultural factors. “You don’t have to pay talent, and people are learning to entertain themselves.”

Winner: Cassettes and twelve-inch singles

Rebounding from the collapse of the straight disco market in 1980, sales of twelve-inch singles began to increase significantly. “People are looking for a more dance-oriented mix,” says Mike Wyner, “and they enjoy the picture sleeve.” “Don’t You Want Me” and “Rock the Casbah” were most frequently cited as major twelve-inch hits, while Kief’s Wilson notes with some amazement that “We’ve sold the living shit out of ‘Planet Rock’ [by Afrika Bambaataa]and’The Message'[by Grandmaster Flash, below left].”

Wyner says that prerecorded-cassette sales for some MOR acts, Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson among them, have started to outstrip album sales. And everyone acknowledges that blank-tape sales continued on the upswing.

Loser: Stanley Gortikov


The president of the Recording Industry Association of America was once again unable to persuade Congress to pass the Mathias Amendment, which would have slapped a royalty tax onto the sale of blank tape, a tax that would go into the pockets of the record industry.

There were other winners and losers in 1982 as well. On the plus side were the resurgence of Marvin Gaye, the two-album triumph of the Go-Go’s and the chart-topping returns of Paul McCartney and the J. Geils Band. Not faring as well were REO Speedwagon, whose followup to Hi-Infidelity, Good Trouble, didn’t make the Top Five, and Kim Carnes, who couldn’t sustain her “Bette Davis Eyes” popularity. On balance, it may have been a poor year for the industry, but the successes enjoyed by new bands, new sounds and new ways of presenting music suggested that where there is innovation, profit may not be far behind.