A maturing Gen X needs its own music

Critical Eye

September 02, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

The mortgage, 401(k) contributions, day care payments, overpriced gym memberships -- adult concerns proliferate around Americans exiting their 20s and moving into their 30s and beyond.

With such responsibilities and, one hopes, maturation come musical tastes that have evolved beyond the teen-obsessed hits flooding commercial radio and dominating the Top 10 list on iTunes.

Generation X is growing up -- that slender generation, born between 1964 and 1979, that music marketers so often overlook in favor of baby boomers and teens.

Too old to race to the box office for Pretty Ricky tickets yet too young to file into a casino show starring the Temptations Revue, members of Gen-X have come of age in a fragmented, computer-driven pop culture.

They're going to have to work to find music that represents them -- but their computer savvy will help.

"The '80s and '90s still have an image problem," says David Allan, a radio programming veteran and marketing professor at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia. "The music of those decades was very disposable, so now you have a generation who grew up during that time looking for meaningful music."

Although hip-hop and grunge boomed while many Xers were in high school and college, few cultural touchstones bond the generation musically. Baby boomers' musical tastes were informed by the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, Woodstock and artist-building AM radio. Generation X had MTV, a flashy, mammoth cultural force that shamelessly promoted style over substance. Video killed the radio star, indeed.

Gen-X has mostly moved on. But today, record companies are still working with old models, marketing to their most natural audience, teens, and to the enormous, wealthy baby boom generation. And the companies are having difficulty reaching even them.

"The business of marketing music is becoming more challenging in general," says Kirk Biglione, a media consultant who writes about technological and cultural topics for medialoper.com. "These new challenges are caused by a range of issues from piracy to an overabundance of new music. Consumers have access to more music than ever before."

The segmentation of radio into niche formats and the advent of the Internet and the iPod have made that possible. Yes, consumers can get what they want -- but they have to know where to go. So companies have to be savvier and more creative as they target Generation Xers.

Marketers elsewhere in the commercial landscape are recognizing that Generation X has adult needs and money to spend -- and they're even turning to the tried-and-true trend of matching a brand with music. Cadillac, for instance, recently revamped its ad campaign, replacing the classic sounds of Led Zeppelin with the jagged alt-rock of the Pogues.

"Many of the conventional products that once sold to baby boomers are revamping their approaches, which now reflect a more technologically savvy generation and a different focus on lifestyle," says Tena Clark, a Grammy-nominated songwriter and founder of DMI Music & Solutions, a music branding firm based in Pasadena, Calif. "Where Cadillac was once your father's car, this generation has been addressed via a different approach, via modernization and customization of the product to reflect personal flash and flair, along with practicality."

That personal connection applies at least as much to music as it does to a luxury car. And music serves a different purpose as listeners mature.

"As you grow older, the hope is that your tastes become more sophisticated. You find music should be something attached to an experience, not a thing," says Thom Jurek, staff writer at allmu sic.com-AMG, a Michigan-based Web entertainment database.

For members of Generation X, finding new music that dovetails with personal maturation is a challenge.

Some experts have noticed that those who came of age during the '80s and '90s have looked to other eras for adventurous music of substance.

"Through iTunes and samples used in hip-hop, many in that age group are checking out a lot of soul and rock from the '70s, that time when radio and record companies were building artists and careers," says Allan.

Modern, transporting music whose mature lyrics speak to the experiences of the 30-to-early-40s crowd is still available, if often unheard. Some of it is refreshingly artful. But because promotional focus seems to be squarely on the teen or baby boomer market, such music sometimes falls through the cracks.

Lower-profile artists such as Suzanne Vega, Ledisi, Emerson Hart, Keite Young and Rahsaan Patterson have all recently released strong albums whose kaleidoscopic sounds are too mature for teen radio. Lyrically, these singer-songwriters explore romantic and spiritual love, evolving identities, new marriage and self-worth with an incisiveness that comes from having lived a little.

Such relevant music is too bold for even many adult commercial stations. But Generation X is technology savvy. Experts say the group has taken quickly to satellite radio and to using the Web to discover and download new music.

"Finding music like that is going to require some investigating on blogs and different music sites like dustygroove.com or allmusic," says AMG's Jurek. "You don't buy a car without going to Consumer Reports, right? It's the same with music that's timeless and has meaning. To find it these days, you're gonna have to do some digging. But the quality is out there."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

To hear music by Emerson Hart and Suzanne Vega, go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost

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