The success of Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers (whose second release, Dig Your Own Hole, debuted at No. 14 in April), was further proof for record-label execs that the new alternative to "alternative" rock was upon us. Last year saw a glut of electronica and electronica-influenced releases from Laika, the Sneaker Pimps, Roni Size, Spring Heel Jack, David Holmes, Portishead, Daft Punk, Crystal Method, Cornershop -- not to mention scores of lesser lights.
More significantly record companies began signing DJs not as artists but as business partners. Island Records was one of the first to do so: In 1996 the company hired Jason Bentley (who still spins records for the Los Angeles radio station KCRW) to help start a jungle/dance imprint called Quango Records. Early in 1997 A&M Records recruited Gary Richards (a DJ who has previously worked for record labels) and Philip Blaine (an L.A. concert promoter) to start 1500 Records, which has already released a handful of electronica-style albums. Later in the year, the British trip-hop pioneer Tricky was approached by none other than DreamWorks Records, the Spielberg/Katzenberg/Geffen conglomerate, to start his own label, Durban Poison.
So far electronica is primarily a boys' club (and a British boys' club at that, aside from the Las Vegas-based Crystal Method). Women serve as singers for a few electronica-styled outfits (the Sneaker Pimps, Dubstar, and Laika, for instance) but rarely are they the ones behind the control panel.
In a sense women provided this year's antidote to electronica mania. For the most part, they stuck to the basics: folk (Jewel, Joan Osborne), pop (Fiona Apple, Gwen Stefani of No Doubt), and soft rock (Sarah McLachlan, Shawn Colvin). McLachlan's all-female Lilith Fair tour was everything electronica isn't: accessible, personable, communal, and politically active. (Scores of booths promoting causes from AIDS research to environmental awareness were set up at each tour site.)
It was a daring idea in a year when even the most established traveling roadshows and big-name arena bands were drawing low-capacity crowds. Lollapalooza suffered from low turnout all summer, as did the H.O.R.D.E. Festival. On their PopMart tour, U2 sometimes played to as many as 20,000 empty seats (though at $52 a head, the band still managed to make money). A couple of electronica-based tours, Big Top and Moonshine Overamerica, generated more media buzz than sales. In the end Lilith Fair became the top-grossing tour of the year.
It also propelled many of its participants up the charts. Jewel, for example, saw her debut album hit the Top 10 and sell well over 5 million copies. "We have gained power by making money," McLachlan told Billboard magazine in September, "and radio can't ignore that people want to hear the music. The public demand is speaking loud."
Lilith Fair cultivated an artsy-craftsy feel (vendors selling summer dresses and funky hats turned the grounds into something like a hippie-chick shopping mall), but it made one concession to technology: a Website. After all not having a Website in 1997 would be similar to doing all your advertising via a guy wearing a sandwich board.
The past year saw plenty of Web activity. Duran Duran released "Electric Barbarella," the first single from its most recent album, Medazzaland, over the Net before giving it to record stores, causing some resentment among retailers. CD Now, a service that sells CDs over the Web, bought advertising space on seemingly thousands of music-related sites. Perhaps the most interesting development, however, was the proliferation of MP3s.
Small, downloadable music files that offer near-CD quality, MP3s were developed within the past year or two. The good news is that those who don't want to shell out fifteen or sixteen dollars for a new CD can go to various independently run Websites and download sometimes hundreds of songs. The bad news is that it's completely illegal. The Recording Industry Association of America claims that inestimably large profits are being lost to computer users trading songs over their phone lines. In December the RIAA shut down perhaps a dozen Websites that were offering pirated files of Pearl Jam's yet-to-be-released album Yield.
"The band takes such pride in the packaging and presentation of its music that for an album to come out in a way that isn't as they intended just isn't fair," Pearl Jam's manager, Kelly Curtis, told Billboard magazine. "And it's not fair to the fans who don't happen to have computers."