Tuesday, July 20, 2004

I Predict

"So where do you see the music industry going?" The Motley Fool asks.

Glad you asked. Grab a cold one, this ain't gonna be short.

To see where the music industry is going, we need to look in the rearview and see where it's been.

Oddly enough, when we start in on the blame game of what the hell happened, we have to start at "classic rock" stations. Until the mid 80s, one of the more popular radio formats was a mix of all the current hits, regardless of genre. So, you would hear Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, the Doors, the Cars, Olivia Newton John, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, the Commodores, Bob Marley, Air Supply (shudder), Willie Nelson, and Duran Duran all in the same hour on the same station. It was more varied in the late 70s, but variety was still limping along until the mid 80s. Then, because of a rift between Punk and New Wave, where neither audience could stand listening to the other's music, radio began to fragment worse than it had at any time in the past since rock and roll pushed big bands off the stage. And, while never the most popular genre, even country had gone through a drastic change, splintering into the "outlaws" and overly slick "new country," which occurred about the same time that Urban Cowboy changed the pop landscape for a while. Thus, within the major genres, there were deep divisions in preferences and tastes so profound that a format that would attempt to keep everyone happy would in fact be an equal opportunity offender. Finally, into the mix came rap and hip-hip - and hip-hop's bastard stepchild, the milquetoast harmonizing groups like Boyz II Men (later carried to its nauseating extreme by prefab boy and girl groups) - further fracturing the audience. Into this mess strolled the "classic rock" radio format, which endlessly recycles the best of the hits of yesterdecade, hitting all the right endorphin points, causing a mass abandonment of the more eclectic mix formats, eliminating exposure to new music. The audience has left the building.

Next came the deregulation of radio and the consolidation of many diverse labels into 4 to 5 monolithic corporations, whose intent was not producing and marketing music, but owning and creating the content for their hardware and media outlets. The idea being if they owned the production of media as well as the delivery mechanism, they could cut costs and maximize profit. So, in short, the bean counters took over everything. And if this cynical, brain-dead approach to the creation of music didn't hurt enough, the homogenization of the radio market made an already vanilla market now sugar-free and fat-free, making even the most pabulum-receptive, Lawrence Welk listener underwhelmed and thus unable to slough through the interminable commercial breaks just to hear another lame song. It's discovered en masse that radios come with an off switch.

The most notorious trend in the midst of this making water from wine was the creation of boy bands and eye-candy chanteuse wannabes, formed by businessmen rather than the artists themselves, purposely created with the sole intent of playing to the lowest common denominator. Or, to put it more bluntly, music created just the same way music for commercials is created; it's pure marketing. Another attractive feature of this approach is the artist is easily controlled since they don't have any real ability themselves, and thus they're cheaper and less work than a messy band full of disparate creative personalities with actual talent who all expect to get paid reasonably. Britney, Christina, Madonna (the Godmother of all that is fake and marketing-driven), TLC, Brandy, Destiny's Child, NSync, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, and their predecessor Boyz II Men all had a distinctive (ironic word, that, to describe something so bland) implosive aural quality, something I've often described as "the attack of the background singers." The primary sound is a synthetic beat provided by a drum machine or a stolen James Brown drum riff, an excessively blended and overproduced music track, which was usually a slush of synthesized keyboards ("muzak" by another name), topped off by weak voicals harmonizing with the occasional showoff solo exploiting and abusing the musical conceit of melisma to new, profound depths. Even dogs in proximity to this kind of music display extreme discomfort, it's so horrid. However, since it is so frothy and sweet, unsophisticated pre-teens whose musical palettes have been formed primarily by cartoon themesongs soak this stuff up like maxipads with wings.

Two other contributing factors were price gouging and the quality of albums in general. Nearly all the labels and the music clubs were either sued or threatened with legal action when news of their decade-long practice of CD price gouging filled the entertainment news outlets. The companies had once promised that the initial high price for CDs would go down once the format was more widespread and mastering costs dropped. Well, both of those things happened, but prices continued to rise. All the labels admitted their price-fixing sins, too - a rare thing in this post-Nixon age. Then there was the quality issue. If you popped for a $20 CD, you'd often find that only the single you heard on the radio was any good. You'd immediately spot said single on one of these types of albums because it would have an asterisk next to the title, and the explanatory fine print would reveal that that one song had been produced and mixed by a team or individual that hadn't been even slightly involved in the creation of the rest of the album, which sounded like it. To make matters worse, there was a brief span of years where the "hotter" mix of the single played on the radio wasn't the version that was on the album. It became so controversial that Loreena McKennitt's label was forced to provide a free copy of the single "The Mummer's Dance" by request to anyone who had purchased the album. Jewel and Sarah McLachlan had similar fiascos to deal with. Jewel's first three radio hits aren't available in their familiar radio mix anywhere.

On top of all this, all the supposed music channels - MTV and VH1 in America - simply stopped playing videos and put on wrestling, softcore porn, reality shows, game shows, and nostalgia programming. Thus, they closed off the one other avenue anyone had to new music.

So, with the combination of histrionic muzak filling the allotted 15 minutes per hour between overly loud commercial blocks on radio, acerbated by no other new music source and the fractured listening public, most people began tuning out entirely. This in combination with consumers having been burned by not getting the actual song they'd heard on the radio anywhere on their pricy new CD caused sales to plummet, and the music scene flopped over with a resounding crash, broad cartoon X's where its big, bright eyes used to be.

Then, a convenient scapegoat quietly shuffled onto the pasture: file-trading technology, also known as peer-to-peer networking software that didn't require a central server, which allowed the easy trading of small MP3 song files. If you actually managed to hear a song you liked, you could hop onto the web, search it up, and have it playing in less time then it took to find your keys and wallet, back out of the driveway, and make it to the first traffic light. The music industry had also done a very spotty job of releasing their back catalogues onto CD, so often Napster or Audiogalaxy were the only places you could find that favorite old guilty pleasure. Music was suddenly free in every sense of the word. I even used these things for a while, though primarily to snag songs not available on CD, or those that I wouldn't buy a whole CD just to get the single.

Apparently unable to see their own culpability in the mess, the zombie music conglomerates blamed the music trading websites solely for their financial losses. Draconian legislation and lawsuits were invoked, and guilt-fests were regularly excreted through media megalith print and broadcast outlets, proffering tales of woe of poor starving artists who were robbed of their royalties from thieves downloading songs for free. (In a classic misstep, the primary poster child for this effort was the full-goose bozo insane multi-gazillionaire Garth Brooks, with his creepy glassy staring eyes, who also wanted to you stop buying used CDs so he could finally meet his goal of outselling the Beatles. He eventually relented and starting doing soda commercials, assuming his appropriate place in the music world strata.) Music lovers and fringe journalists would meekly state that the CDs were too expense, too full of filler, and that most of what passed for hits sucked the high hard one anyway, but only the bean counters' version of events consistently made the big press.

So, here we are, on the brink of what's to come. Radio stations are worse than ever. The only place you can find decent music on TV is in the background of car commercials and the like. The conglomerates proudly broadcast stories of terrorizing families with multimillion-dollar lawsuits, and we're treated to teary-eyed fifteen-year-old girls promising during the evening news that they'll never download a song again! Gangsta rap is about the only thing that flies up the charts because teenagers have an insatiable appetite to hear "motherfucking bitches" (giggle giggle!) conjugated in infinite fractal-like progressions, the "music" itself being secondary to the appeal. Celtic CDs and recordings of wolves howling to each other across mountain valleys fly off the shelf at Target, because the rest of us need something new to listen to, even if it is an asthmatic, amorous canine. And country, of all things, is charting regularly because that's where the rock and rollers have found refuge. A good third of "modern country" is really straight-ahead rock; the drag being you have to sit through Faith waxing nauseous about "This Kiss" and her hubby Tim saying you should "Live Like You Were Dying" (apparently in unintentional reaction to the current wingnut Republican administration doing their best to outlaw the American dream), before you get to the good stuff like Phil Vassar (the new Billy Joel), Jo Dee Messina, Trick Pony, Gretchen Wilson, and Lyle Lovett.

But the eventual future is beginning to dawn. Apple (of all companies) is finally proving that if you offer downloads of singles at decent prices rather than suing customers into bankruptcy, people will happily throw down their plastic. The proliferation of cheap high-speed internet access allows folks to listen to that one radio station in Oregon, or perhaps London, or even Uruguay, that plays tunes they want to hear. Indie labels and bands are offering scads of free songs for legal download. The ability to "rip" your favorite old songs off your CDs and either make awesome mix CDs or set up a virtual radio station via your home computer and stereo, with 40 gigabytes of MP3s of your library at your fingertips, is attainable by even the most technophobic penny-pincher. (Really. You can get a computer and the software to do this for around $300. All it takes is the time to convert your CDs to MP3s, and space next to your stereo for the box.)

So, the bottom is going to blow out of the market; some of the mega-corporations are either going to go out of business or just close the doors on their "music content generation" divisions. The web is going to become the primary outlet for exposure to new music, and the engine through which to acquire it. Most people will take the option to purchase the music rather than steal it, as long as ridiculous pricing, retrograde purchasing schemes (forcing the purchase of an entire album), or virulent copy protection doesn't make it unreasonable. Sales of CDs will rebound once they become quality packages again, and they will regain that quality due to the pressure from the web market. Indie labels and DIY bands are gonna thrive. Oddly, this will cause a quasi-dissolution of the genres, because exposure to variety will make everyone crave it, and genre-blending (like the Beatles did) will become more common. You'll have soccer moms and dads driving around listening to a jumble of Ska, Punk, Soul, Pop, Rock, Jazz, Lounge, Chillout, Thrash, and Country on their MP3 players. Teens will mix their favorites in odd sonic collages, like Dangermouse's infamous "Grey Album." (Rap will forever remain just the darling of bored teens and misguided critics, if it survives at all; no one else listens to rap. I've researched this for about 5 years, now.) Fans will have greater access to the artists, because it's easier to cultivate and communicate with rabid fans through message boards, blogs, emails, and perks like free songs on a personal website, than it is to have to deal with them backstage after a show or at a CD signing. Also, artists will get a larger and more direct cut of their due profits - a very worthy trend, indeed. AM radio will reemerge as a place for DJs and personalities to create the kind of mood or show they feel like, or they will specialize in a trend or complimentary genres. For instance, we have an "Americana" AM station here in Denver, which is awesome; the DJs are calm and actually talk about the music - who the performer is and even some background on the tunes. In other words, AM will become what FM was when it first came out. Britney and Christina will end up posing for Playboy - sooner rather than later - probably in the same issue, and they'll be touching each other. What a wonderful world it will be.

In short, music will be back and better than ever. But it's gonna take about three to five years, sad to say. But be patient. It is coming. And, remember, you heard it here first.

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