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Lamenting the Dinosaur: The Death of the Music Industry

The music business is clearly broken, but can it be fixed? More importantly, SHOULD it be fixed?
Since time immemorial, people "of a certain age" have complained about the music to which subsequent generations have listened. There is a persistent image in my mind of Johann Sebastian Bach's father muttering about "these kids and their Baroque music! Why, in my day we had Gregorian chants! Ahh, good times!" This cycle is born out, generation after generation, and, although the shift varies by degree on a case by case basis, almost all children find something to like in the music that their parents cannot tolerate. Knowing this, I recognize that there is a risk that this particular piece of writing will come across as simply the rantings of a cranky old man pining for the good old days. That cannot be helped, as this piece will be largely informed by my personal observations and opinions. I am, as of this writing, a 43 year old man who has been a music lover my entire life. I have a background in classical and orchestral music, and was, at one time, a state ranked high school musician (French Horn). My true love, however, is Rock and Roll. I have been a member of various semi-pro rock bands, none of which you have ever heard of. I have studied composition and musical structure. I mention all of this simply in the interest of disclosure. The following is based on my opinion, but it is an informed opinion. I know whereof I speak.

In the early days of Rock and Roll, EVERYTHING was new. The first Rockabilly sound evolved out of the Big Band Swing of the late '40's and the Greasy Rhythm and Blues of the Juke Joints of the Southern "Chittlin' Circuit." The music company executives, it should be noted, were NOT fans of this new music. The Mafia was heavily involved in the music industry, at least at the major label level, and they clearly had no love for this new, raucous sound. The industry big-wigs WERE fans of money, however. It is called an industry for a reason, after all. Young people liked this Rock and Roll a lot, and were willing to spend their money on the records that they enjoyed. It was a simple decision to put a product on the market for a consumer group that would purchase it, whether the record company executives liked it or not. This led to a phenomenal diversity of styles and artists which continued through the sixties and seventies. Around 1978, this began to change. Why?

The glitter and Disco era brought two new job descriptions to the music industry: the Radio Consultant and the Artist and Repertory Agent, or A & R man. The Radio consultants began breaking the music down into easily pigeonholed sub-categories and formatting radio stations which resulted in the heavily programmed play-lists of top fifty songs repeated ad infinitum with which we're all familiar today. As devastating to radio and music as this was, the more insidious beast was the A & R man. These "field agents" acted as talent scouts, hitting the bars, night clubs and honky tonks looking for the next star. Unlike the earlier studio heads, however, these guys had definite opinions about the music, and weren't afraid to act on them. If "Artist A" was selling 5,000 units a week, the A & R man was out scouting for the next "Artist A." Suddenly those fifty songs in constant rotation on the radio sounded pretty much the same. By the mid-eighties, and continuing into today, the pop charts became dominated by interchangeable, disposable pop stars without unique voices or musical vision.

That doesn't mean there wasn't quality music being recorded. Some of the most enduring artists of all time arose from this era. What is unique about bands like Metallica or Nine Inch Nails is that they achieved meteoric success largely without radio support. Word of mouth by dedicated fan bases coupled with almost superhuman feats of back to back touring put these bands at the top of their fields. They came to dominate the industry not because of the system but in spite of it.

The 1980's brought technological changes, as well. The advent of the Compact Disc made crystal clear music available for a nominal price to everyone. The really subversive change that this format brought however, was not readily apparent at first: the CD gave the listener the ability to skip to a specific track with the push of a button. Albums could be cued to a specific song by placing the stylus on the blank space between songs, but this relied on visual identification of the silent spot, an inexact science at best. Some audio-cassette players allowed track search features, but they worked sporadically using much the same method as the LP's they were replacing. The CD, with a simple press of a button, cued a song to its exact beginning every time. The unintended consequence of this innovation was that suddenly, people were not listening to the entire album any more. People would buy a $12 CD and listen to two songs on the entire disc. Slowly, there was less pressure to create albums that were worth listening to in their entirety. Full CD's still sold remarkably well, largely because there was no alternative format. CD singles existed, but they were only marginally cheaper than the full length CD, and were not widely available.

Then, a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century: the internet sprang into being. We all witnessed the Napster revolution, followed by the rise of iTunes. Now, we have the ability to purchase any song from an album (with some notable hold-outs) for less than a buck apiece. Record companies responded by flooding their libraries with even more interchangeable, disposable pop stars with instantly forgettable "hits." (Country Music, you are not off the hook on this one either. Hank Williams must be spinning like a rotisserie chicken!) The airwaves are filled with singers and songstresses who have the exact same delivery, style and range. There are no innovators on the radio any more. THIS is the attack of the clones.

So, what's to be done? There is quality music available, but how do we find it? The internet is the best place to look, but there is so much material available, it's difficult to know where to begin. I suggest that the best way to proceed is the same way that you would eat an elephant: one bite at a time. Just jump in and start listening. Sure, you'll have to sift through a lot of chaff to get to some quality wheat, but the results will be worth it. YOU can be that cool guy that listens to all that great stuff no one has ever heard of. Remember when you and your best friend were the only two guys in your hometown who owned an Anthrax album? Ahh, good times!
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Kerry Higgins

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