I really can’t believe I didn’t think of this before, but as Jon Pareles points out in this New York Times piece is one of the reasons that the indie rock and pop charts seemed to integrate so much this decade was simply because album sales overall fell:
The blockbuster mentality that settled over popular music in the 1980s has not disappeared. The 2000s still had multi-platinum pop stars, some who got a running start in the ’90s (like Eminem, Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake) and some who made their way through the debacle (Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Norah Jones, Lil Wayne, Taylor Swift). But as disc sales fell, the Top 10 was repeatedly breached by acts with cult followings — the Mars Volta, for instance — rather than mass-market consensus. It was a good time for indie-rockers and for older musicians who weren’t going to get played on contemporary hit radio.
Making the charts still carries cachet with it, of course, and I’m not sure that cachet has lessened any. But the road to get there is just numerically different. As more groups share that cachet, the pool of our core popular music looks bigger, and more stylistically (if not by any other measure) more diverse. While as a journalist, I’m not ever going to say that diminishing sales in an industry are a good thing, I am in favor of more people getting access to the kind of publicity and status that makes significant success viable. And music, like the movies, is probably an industry where the folks at the top can lose some income and still remain wildly more than comfortable, while making room for a large number of other people and other groups to do the same.