Friday, March 23, 2007

The Decline and Fall of Musicopolis
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In the halcyon days of yore (or so the story goes), musicians and record executives lived in a relative state of symbiotic bliss. Musicians would ply their craft at various lounges, working their way through the ranks in their quest for the elusive recording contract, until being discovered by a savvy talent scout, who would launch them into the stratosphere of fame and fortune.
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At least, that's how it worked in the movies.
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The reality is a bit more harsh. The relationship between labels and performers has always been tenuous at best, with both sides wrangling over who owns the music. To the labels, it's product; to the artists, it's a piece of themselves. And for the consumer, it's both and neither. We hear in the music something that resonates inside us, and prompts us to want to own it in some way. Ultimately, it was the consumer, with ever-changing and fickle tastes, who unwittingly fueled the music business.
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As lame as it was, it was an uneasy triumvirate that more or less worked for decades.Particular in the sixties and on through the better part of the nineties, the music business was helmed by people who actually understood music and popular tastes. Sure, they cultivated artists with broad appeal, but they also took chances on artists that might have a narrower base of support, realizing the superstars were making the business enough profit to take those chances.
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Sometime around the turn of the century, it all changed. The corporate conglomerates, smelling new blood, completely reinvented the music business in their own image. Gone were the execs like Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun who shaped the benign empire that was the music business, replaced by a new breed far more familiar with spreadsheets than music, who transformed it into the music industry. It's an important distinction--when it began being referred to as an industry, rather than a business, it took on a faceless shape, a sprawling Musicopolis that had neither the energy or the inclination to attend to its core affairs.
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Musicopolis is an empire doomed to an ignomonious demise if it continues on its current course. See, the problem with empires is they grow fat and lazy, relying on their past glories, rather than plotting future strategies. By clinging tenaciously to outmoded models, they ensure their own extinction. Rather than embrace the voices emerging from the hinterlands, they seek to choke them.
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In Musicopolis, this problem is compounded by the fact that the new emperors come from backgrounds that have little, if anything, to do with music, and almost everything to do with faulty statistical projections based on hard goods sales. They've fallen back on the premise that if this sold well, then something almost identical to it, slightly tweaked, will sell even better. Selling music, however, is not the same as selling Toyotas.
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The sad thing is, in a society dominated by superficiality and soundbytes, music has become a byproduct imbedded between commercial spots, rather than the other way around. You're not going to find anything challenging in commercial radio. Since 1996, when the FCC lifted restrictions on the number of stations a single entity can own, radio has fallen into the hands of a few conglomerates such as Clear Channel, who mercilessly dictate popular taste based on what will sell advertising units. It doesn't matter what the particular format is--bland, inoffensive music sells ad blocks. And since airplay sells records, the labels sign people who are going to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
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Before the Music Dies is a DVD documentary that brilliantly explores some of these issues, and how they are systematically destroying American music as we know it.. Incorporating interviews with music notables like Branford Marsalis, Dave Matthews, Erykah Badu, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton, among others, it makes a compelling case for a radical restructuring of the the bloated, decaying entity that is the music industry. Some will decry it as one-sided and naive, but those people are the lackeys who have put the business into its current state of affairs. It centers on the deterioration of American music in the pop mindset, but the problems of the industry have global ramifications.
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In his report to Britain's Economic Research Council, titled "Creative Destruction in the Music Industry: The Way Ahead," Andrew Ian Dodge focuses on what he considers the UK market's failure to fully exploit its strengths in a rapidly changing global market dominated by American technologies. That, coupled with the BBC's virtual monopoly of the airwaves, has led to a stagnation in which Brit bands find it increasingly difficult to compete. While his premises focus on the British market, and are debatable, his paper reaches the same conclusion as Before the Music Dies: the music business is on a slidetrough to self-destruction.
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Both of these works look at the core problems confronting the industry from the musician's viewpoint, rightfully pitting them as potential casualties in a business that has turned a deaf ear to public desperately seeking something, anything that will hold its interest. The labels spoonfeed the consumer measured doses of fifteen minute fame, and, by and large, they lap it up. Given that the average music consumer has a short attention span, why would the labels invest in an unknown commodity? The answer is, of course, they wouldn't. It's much easier to retread last week's hit with a new hairstyle and a new prefab voice. What they've failed to figure into the equation, however, is that the seeds of a revolution are taking root just beneath their status quo model. The very foundation of the music business is shifting plates, and the execs refuse to admit the towers are about to fall.
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It's a revolution that's been a long time coming. When musicians and fans alike discovered the uncharted lands of cyberspace, the first shots finally rang across the world. Musicopolis viewed cyberspace as a threat to its sovereignity, and responded, as empires inevitably do, with all the considerable force at its disposal. Calling up its armies of attorneys and enlisting the aid of some mercenary musicians, the music empire crushed the early Napster Uprising, reducing it to little more than a corporate lackey before utterly destroying it. If anything, the downfall of Napster became a rallying cry for both sides, and legal filesharing was born.
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Here's the problem as it now exists, and the blame has to be borne not only by the industry, but by the consumer and, to a certain extent, the musician, as well. The industry, rather than accept the indisputable fact that the Internet has inexorably altered the face of popular music and how it is delivered, instead continues to wage battle against it. A certain segment of consumers unwittingly aid the industry by bemoaning what they perceive as the extinction of the CD (which, ironically, exterminated the 12" vinyl album) if downloads become the dominant delivery method. And a number of musicians still cling to the belief they have to be signed to a major label to prove their worth.
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None of this is true. What is true is this--by not embracing technologies that can't even be considered "new" at this point, the music industry as we know it has already committed suicide. Cyberspace provided the industry with what could have been the greatest promotional tool that could be imagined. But because it was new, and because it required a rethinking of how the industry would evolve, the new execs chose instead to attempt to bully it out of existence. It was a strategy doomed from the start. Revolutions are like that.
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The music business will not die--it's been evolving since our ancient forebears discovered sticks and stones can make for interesting sounds. This notion of music as industry will wither and rot away, however. Technology, ironically, has made the process of delivering music more organic than at any time in history. With an investment of less than 5000$US and a relatively decent Mac or PC, anybody can essentially have a full fledged recording studio in their den. Social networking sites like YouTube and MySpace offer invaluable promo space at no cost, and have been instrumental in launching the careers of new acts that would have been ignored via the industry's rubber stamp methods.
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If the recording "industry" wants to survive in this climate, it has no choice but to make certain concessions and come to certain realizations. Downloading music is not going to go away, no matter how much the labels kick and scream. What they have to do is accept this core fact, and embrace it. Sure, it's going to force them to reevaluate what makes up an album's worth of music. It's also going to force musicians to give more of themselves, and actually make an album, rather than forty some-odd minutes of filler. The truth is, there are scant few albums that have more than a couple of good songs on them. If this doesn't happen, the furure of music will return from whence it came--the single. Attempting to blame declining album sales on the public's fascination with downloading songs is absurd. The consumer simply is no longer willing to shell out the bucks for mediocrity, regardless of glitzy packaging.
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Good music is out there, probably more of it than ever before. But now, the balance of power has shifted from the towers of Musicopolis to the street level. It's an uncertain future, perhaps, but one rife with infinitely exciting possibilities.
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The King is dead. Long live the king.
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1 comment:

Lagwolf said...

Could you ask the editor to add the URL to my piece? Its great you wrote the piece but I would appreciate the link.