A momentous time was had by most
Timberlake was up, Durst went down, and the unexpected became the norm
From the blockbuster high of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band playing Fenway Park to the nightmarish low of the West Warwick, R.I., club fire that killed 100 people because of needless pyrotechnics, it was an astonishing year in the world of pop. So much happened on so many levels that no single essay can do it justice. From the hero worship of Johnny Cash to the media disgrace of Michael Jackson, it was truly a year of extremes.
Fortunately, not everything was so momentous. Jackson was probably too busy to notice that Rolling Stone crowned Justin Timberlake the new "King of Pop." And there were quiet pleasures, such as the classy Norah Jones sweeping the Grammys.
The unexpected became the rule. Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard became instant somebodies on "American Idol." Fred Durst became an instant nobody, and it didn't help that his band, limpbizkit, put out a lame album. Napster, once the scourge of the major record labels, became a legal service. Eminem and The Source magazine fought it out in court over old comments the rapper made about black women. The Dixie Chicks spent a year in backlash hell because singer Natalie Maines said she was "ashamed" President Bush was from her home state of Texas. They also traded insults with Toby Keith.
Artists and fans tap-danced with corporations more than ever. The Rolling Stones outraged many retailers by giving an exclusive to Best Buy to sell their four-DVD concert set, "Four Flicks." Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes) and jam-rocker Dave Matthews spoke out against concert conglomerate Clear Channel Entertainment, which Oberst called "horribly greedy." And at least one corporation, the Universal Music Group, finally responded to consumer complaints by slashing prices of its new CDs by 30 percent.
That move helped bring people back into record stores. Last year's CD sales were off 10 percent, whereas this year, as of November, the reported drop from last year was 5.5 percent. For an industry mired in doom and gloom and continued file-sharing among consumers, that was good news. And the last quarter of the year was really looking up, as top-selling, holiday-season sales were led by new albums from Jay-Z, Kid Rock, Pink, and G Unit.
Concert sales and record sales again went in opposite directions. According to trade magazine Pollstar, concerts took in $2.1 billion in ticket sales -- a new high for the second year in a row -- up from last year's $1.7 billion. The sales were largely fueled by boomer-generation tours by Springsteen, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Cher, Aerosmith/Kiss, Billy Joel/Elton John, and Simon & Garfunkel.
Springsteen topped the list with a $117 million-plus gross in North America -- the second-highest gross ever (the Rolling Stones' 1994 tour brought in $121 million).
The next tier of successful concerts included Metallica's Summer Sanitarium Tour, country acts Toby Keith and Shania Twain, reunited rockers Phish, punk revivalists Good Charlotte, and a double bill of Timberlake and Christina Aguilera.
In an example of the divergence in ticket and CD sales, hip-hop star 50 Cent sold more records than anyone this year but hovered just outside the top 20 list for concert acts; those figures are still being finalized by Pollstar. No other rapper is in the top 20, despite the fact that hip-hop was the dominant musical genre of the year according to record sales and a bushel of Grammy nominations for OutKast, Missy Elliott, 50 Cent, Eminem, and Jay-Z. There were more nominations for hip-hop artists than for rock acts.
The year also saw the rise of live concert CDs (Clear Channel polished its image by launching a well-received "Instant Live" CD series, allowing fans to purchase a computer-burned CD immediately after a show) and the continued rise of online purchasing. For the first time, a digital single (OutKast's riotous remix of "Hey Ya!") outsold the No. 1 single available in stores in November, which was MercyMe's "I Can Only Imagine." The trend was helped by the surge of legal downloading sites such as Apple's iTunes.
2003 was a good year for garage rock (from the White Stripes to bright new faces the D4, Kings of Leon, and Hot Hot Heat) and emo (meaning emotional music from the likes of Dashboard Confessional, though can't someone devise a less hideous term?). Nu-metal and techno didn't fare as well this year, nor did many of the alternative pop acts that came and went. There were some quiet surprises, though, in the form of dreamy new groups eastmountainsouth and Hem.
Blues music enjoyed a spike, with a seven-part Martin Scorsese-produced documentary series on PBS and the return of Hubert Sumlin (former guitarist with Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf), who electrified a Boston Blues Festival audience at Arlington's Regent Theatre.
The new rock breakout acts were Evanescence, a female-fronted, Little Rock, Ark.-bred band that sold nearly 3 million copies of its debut album, and Audioslave, which consists of veterans from Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden. And it was great to see acts of substance such as Coldplay, Sigur Ros, Radiohead, and Foo Fighters have banner years.
The Boston scene was in transition. The hip-hop movement bubbled upward through the presence of Akrobatik and Mr. Lif, among others, while rock had its moments (Aerosmith and Godsmack continued to be national forces, Bleu released a major-label album, and Bay State metal acts Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage landed slots on Ozzfest). But a tight economy contributed to several unfortunate club closings (the House of Blues, the Kendall Cafe, the Blue Sky Grille, and the Yardrock), which reduced the number of places musicians could play. A smoking ban also took its toll, at least temporarily. On the plus side, the Paradise and new sister club the Paradise Lounge came on strong, as did new addition ZuZu! RIP: Warren Zevon, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Johnny Paycheck, Barry White, Sam Phillips, Elliott Smith, Howie Epstein (Tom Petty bassist), Hank Ballard, Othar Turner, Nina Simone, Bobby Hatfield (Righteous Brothers), Robert Palmer, Mickie Most, Little Eva ("The Locomotion"), Arthur Conley ("Sweet Soul Music"), Sheb Wooley, Mikey Dee, Babatunde Olatunji, Don Gibson, Johnny Cunningham, Celia Cruz, Compay Segundo, Matthew Jay, Noel Redding, and Michael Kamen.