A slight disagreement

G. Bob (whose nom de guerre reminds me of Lawrence Welk, for reasons that don’t translate well to typing, so never mind) posts in the comments below that he disagrees with HFP’s and my own assessment of the root causes of the record industry’s current woes. I started to respond there myself, but I figured it might run a bit long, so I’ll do it here and we’ll see how long it turns out to be. Here’s the bit I’m referring to:

Here’s the thing. EVERY generation thinks that the music of their generation, and sometimes the generation before them, was great, artistic and edgy and that the music that the kids are listening to are commercial dreck. They forget things like Elvis didn’t originally write his own music and that he was marketed like crazy. It slips their mind that the Beatles were, for the most part, not unlike the modern boy band in terms of merchandising and taking an existing sound (rock and roll and blues) and re-packing it for the younger audience. I’m not sayin that Brittney is Elvis, mind you. Hell, just typing that statement made my fingers clench up, but what I am saying is that us old fogeys just don’t frickin’ know. For all we know, some band like Limp Bisket or Korn or some other radio crap will years from now be looked at as being groundbreaking, innovative and the sound of a generation. It’s not for us to decide, really. We made our decisions when we were young. Now we should step back and let the current kids make their choices. Yeah, I think it’s garbage. I seem to recall that my parents didn’t get the Ramones, Clash or other acts of my generation either.

The notion that CDs aren’t selling is because evil record companies won’t allow edgy musicians to record is just plain silly. First off, record companies are, and always have been, in it for the money. If there’s money to be made by booking edgy acts (which, not surprisingly, us geezers define as music that sounds a lot like what we used to listen to.) then you can be sure that some agent would be signing them now. Even if record companies were just letting the next big thing slip out of their greedy fingers, that doesn’t matter. Technology allows pretty much anyone to burn as many CDs as they like for a far cheaper price than it did for records. Why don’t we see independent record labels making gazillions if the only problem was record companies signing crappy acts?

He’s right on that first part, actually. I’ve often thought about that one over the years, and there’s more than a little to be said for it. Check out A.C. Douglas’ bemused and thoughtful disagreement with my assessment of Elvis’ musical ability for more evidence of same. Looked at objectively, the quality of popular music has surely been declining for years and years when considered in purely musical terms. I’ll get back to that idea in a minute.

The thing is, there are a few truths that have to be factored in. The modern music biz bears little resemblance to the music biz of the ’50’s and earlier. Radio stations aren’t run the same way, for one thing. As I stated in the Elvis series, a guy like Dewey Phillips would never be allowed in the front door of a modern radio station. In Memphis circa ’56, he was a powerful and influential regional force in radio. Maybe some of you have heard of a great old DJ who called himself Mad Daddy (his real name was Pete Myers, if you care to Google him) from those days. Same for him – the odds of hearing someone as wildly creative, as completely over-the-top as he was on the radio today are somewhere between zero and not much. And there’s a reason for that. It’s because the music biz ain’t about music anymore.

Oh sure, the music biz was always at bottom about making money, like any other business. But the hype machine that runs things today simply didn’t exist then, and what there was of it was pointed in a different direction. In days of yore the hype and marketing machine existed at the service of the artist, and the artist got himself plugged into the machine at the end of a long process that consisted of years spent building a regional fan base, touring, recording, playing the clubs and county fairs and selling his records to the local yokels from the trunk of his car. Even Elvis went through this process, and there was great debate over whether RCA was making an expensive mistake by buying his contract from Sun, even at that relatively late stage. Today, the situation is reversed: for the first time in history that I’m aware of, you now have “superstars” who sign mega-bucks deals without ever even having performed publicly. Plenty of these “artists” do their first show in a stadium after a year of relentless hype, performed for them by a star-making machine whose central assumption is that the artist is completely replaceable, not the central reason for the hype machine’s existence but just another interchangeable cog in a larger cash-generating entity.

I always thought that the change was easily pinpointed – it occurred right after Buddy Holly’s plane crash, when the promoters decided that “the show must go on,” replaced Holly with local nobody Bobby Vee (who didn’t even have a name for his band at the time – hell, he really didn’t even have a band), and noticed that the girls screamed just as loud anyway. Talk about your triumph of style over substance. Here’s a sample lyric from Holly:

Blue days, black nights, blue tears keep on falling for you, dear now that you’re gone

Blue days, black nights, my heart keeps on calling for you dear and you alone

Memories of you make me sorry I gave you reason to doubt me

And now you’re gone and I am left here all alone, with blue memories – I think of you.

And one from Vee:

Suzie baby, don’t you know

that I love you and want you so?

Come back baby, come back home,

Say you love me and never again roam

Ahem. Yeah, I know that’s kind of unfair and all, but what I’m getting at is that the industry made an important discovery after this: they realized that talent and ability have nothing whatsoever to do with potential for commercial success. And it almost seems as if they’ve been testing the limits of that nasty little truism ever since. And these days it seems as if they think they can sell us anything at all, no matter how antisocial, unmusical, or just plain bad it might be. Of course, I know Sinatra fans who feel that way about Elvis too. Hell, I know Sinatra fans who feel that way about Dean Martin, for that matter. My dad was one.

But the bottom line is that as the world has gotten smaller it’s come under closer scrutiny and tighter control – it’s true of the world generally, and it’s certainly true of the music world as well. In 1956 (or ’46 or ’26 or ’66) the word “demographics” didn’t even exist; now, it’s the axle that turns the wheel of the music industry. As I said in the Elvis thing, in the old days record labels sent talent scouts all over the country, looking for those regionally-popular artists who had the potential to break nationally and appeal to a wider audience. The idea of labels doing that now is completely ludicrous; they have demos coming over the transom at a rate that they can’t possibly even keep up with, and it’s damned difficult to get, say, a New York-based A&R guy to even come out to a club that’s two blocks from his office to see the hot new undiscovered act of the day – and that’s after you promise to send a limo for him and buy his drinks and cocaine. He damned sure ain’t gonna fly out to Bumfuck, Loozyanner to check out regional faves Clem and the Kadiddlehoppers or Charlie Hardrock and the Dickdongs unless Clem or Charlie have verifiably sold fifty or a hundred thousand units already, and that doesn’t happen very often. And even then, they ain’t coming to Bumfuck, La. until Charlie or Clem have come to NY at their own expense and done about a dozen or three “showcases,” which means shows they don’t get paid for. It’s a whole helluva lot easier to just find a cute fifteen-year-old, rename her Tiffany Crystal, and feed her into the machine. Buy some racy outfits, have the in-house tunesmiths crank out a little generic teen angst or love-crush-baby stuff, teach her a few dance moves, call in the friendly “critics” at People magazine and Entertainment Weekly, get her a mention on Entertainment Tonight and the “E” network, bribe the six or seven companies that own every radio station in the country (and yes, they do still do this), and watch the dough flow in. It isn’t even a gamble anymore. And why expend a lot of effort and energy on a gamble when you’ve got a guaranteed sure thing just a few phone calls away?

It doesn’t do much for the quality of the stuff you hear on your car radio on the way to work, I’ll promise you that, because the music doesn’t matter a bit to anybody involved in the whole star-making process. It’s completely throwaway, just like disposable baby wipes. Which is not to say that good stuff never gets past the hypegrinder, just that it’s harder for the cream to rise to the surface when the soup of bullshit runs so damned thick these days. And things have been going that way for years. Back in the Thirties, Sinatra and his bobbysoxers were considered “degenerate.” Hell, even Bach got thrown out of the church for playing “devil music” because he pioneered the use of tritones, which were considered horribly dissonant at the time. It’s been a long, long road from ol’ J.S. to Britney Spears, and god only knows where it’ll end up taking us. Those of us who say that the music of our youth was way better than the crap these young whelps listen to today are almost always right, and it almost never matters.

And as for file-sharing being the source of the industry’s problems, I’ll just say that the music industry has strongly resisted every technological innovation that has come down the pike. They say these days that Napster and CD burners will destroy the industry as we know it – and they said the same thing about cassette tapes before that, and radio before that. They’re not really wrong, in truth. It will destroy the music biz, but the operative part here is the “as we know it” part. I don’t think any of us need to lose any sleep over that – they’ll find a way to make money off it in the end, never fear. And it’s all going to come out okay, one way or another – after all, nobody laments the fact that there aren’t many buggy-whip factories around anymore, do they?

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