Monday, 30 March 2009

The Music Business Today

The Music Business Today

Over the last few years, everyone has witnessed the decline of the music business, highlighted by who did what and why and the blame directed against record companies, artists, internet file sharing and any other theories for which a case could be made. Everyone has read and heard about the "good old days" and how things used to be. People remember when music existed as an art that motivated social movements. Artists and their music flourished in back alleys, the streets, pubs and barns until, in some cases, a popular groundswell propelled it far and wide. These days, that possibility no longer seems to exist. Had the music industry not been decimated by a lack of vision caused by corporate accountants obsessed with the bottom line, musicians would have been able to stick with creating music rather than trying to market it as well. During the late 80s and early 90s the music industry underwent a transformation and restructured, catalyzed by three distinct factors. Record companies no longer viewed themselves as conduits for music, but as a function of Wall Street. Companies were acquired, conglomerated, bought and sold; public stock offerings ensued, shareholders met. At this very same time in the USA, new Nielsen monitoring systems -- BDS (Broadcast Data Systems) and SoundScan were employed to document record sales and radio airplay. Prior to 1991, the Billboard charts were done by manual research; radio stations and record stores across the country were polled to determine what was on their playlists and what the big sellers were. Thus, giving Oklahoma City, for example, an equivalent voice to Chicago's in terms of potential impact on the music scene. BDS keeps track of gross impressions through an encoded system that counts the number of plays or "spins" that a song receives. That number is, thereafter, multiplied by the number of potential listeners. SoundScan was put in place at retail centers to track sales by monitoring scanned barcodes of units crossing the counter. A formula was devised whereby the charts were based 20% on the SoundScan number and 80% on BDS results. The system had changed from one that measured popularity to one that was driven by population. The Record companies soon discovered that because of BDS, they only needed to concentrate on about 12 radio stations in the US; there was no longer a business rationale for working secondary markets that were soon forgotten -- despite the fact that these were the very places where rock and roll was born and thrived. Why pay attention to Louisville -- worth a comparatively few potential listeners -- when the same one spin in New York, Los Angeles or Atlanta, etc., was worth so many more potential listeners? All of a sudden there were #1 records that few of us had ever heard of. At the time we asked ourselves, "Am I out of touch?" We didn't realize that this was the start of change that would grow to kill, if not the whole of the music business, then most certainly, the record companies.

Ronald Reagan's much-vaunted trickle-down theory said that wealth tricked down to the masses from the elite at the top, and we have now we've found out that this is patently untrue -- the current economic collapse reflects this self-serving folly. The same holds for music. It doesn't trickle down; it percolates up from the artists, from word of mouth, from the streets and rises up to the general populace. Constrained by the workings of SoundScan/BDS, music now came from the top and was rammed down people's throats. By 1997, the consumers who had been a long time uninvolved grew passive, and radio stations had to change formats. Creative artistry and the artists, themselves, were now of a secondary importance, taking the back seat to Wall Street as the record companies went public. The artists were now being sold out by the record companies and forced to figuratively kiss the asses of their corporate masters as these record companies went public. In essence, the artists were no longer the primary concern; what mattered now was keeping their stockholders fat and happy and "making the quarterly numbers"; the music itself was an afterthought. During the time of the upheaval wrought by SoundScan, BDS and the "Wall Streeting" of the industry, country music seized the opportunity and tacitly claimed the traditional music business. Country music has come to dominate the heartland of America, a landscape abandoned or ignored by the gatekeepers of rock and pop. Great new country music stars came from seemingly nowhere to grow to tremendous popularity, like Garth Brooks. While all this was going on, technology, just as it always does, progressed. That which, by all rights should have had a positive impact for all artists -- better sound quality, accessibility, and portability -- is now being blamed for many of the ills that beset the music business. The captains of the industry it seemed proved themselves incapable of having a broader, more long-range view of what this new technology offered. The music business is very complicated in itself so it's understandable that these additional elements were not dealt with coherently in light of the distractions that abound. Not understanding the possibilities, they ignorantly turned it into a nightmarish situation. The nightmare is the fact that they simply didn't know how to make it work for the artists and the consumers.

The CD, it should be noted, was born out of greed. It was devised to prop up record sales on the expectation of people replenishing their record collections with CDs of albums they had already purchased. They used to call this "planned obsolesce" in the car business. Sound quality was supposed to be one of the big selling points for CDs but, as we know, it wasn't very good at all. It was just another con, a get-rich-quick scheme, a monumental hoax perpetrated on the music consuming public. These days, some people suggest that it is up to the artist to create avenues to sell the music of his own creation, and in today's environment, is it realistic to expect someone to be a songwriter, recording artist, record company and the P.T. Barnum, so to speak, of his own career? It's amusing that a few people who have never made a record or written a song seem to know so much more about what an artist should be doing than the artist himself. If these people know so much, maybe they should make their own records and just leave artists out of it?

Now that the carnage in the music industry is so deep you can hardly wade through it, it's open season for criticizing artists, for making a misstep or trying to create new opportunities to reach an audience, as and example Bruce Springsteen releasing an album at Wal-Mart or Paul McCartney doing a deal with Starbucks. The old rules and constraints that had governed what was once considered a legitimate artist are no longer valid. When you think about it, you must conclude that there really is no legitimate business; there is no game left. So sadly, today, it's really a matter of "every man for himself." In terms of possibilities, artists are but an echo of what they once were. Of course, the artist does not want to "sell out to The Man." Left with no real choice except that business model of greed and the money counting mentality that Ronald Reagan propagated and the western countries embraced, there is only "The Man" to deal with. There is no street for the music to rise up from. There is no time for the music to develop in a natural way that we can all embrace when it ripens and matures. That's why the general public doesn't really care. It's not that the people don't still love music; of course they do. It's just the way it is presented to them that ignores their human side.

For any hope for survival of the music that everyone loves, compassion must replace name-calling, fairness must replace greed and everyone in the music industry needs to come together and try to understand each other's problems. Maybe artists should form an artist-driven record label, but trying to get artists and business people together to work for the common good of everyone involved is like herding cats. When all is said and done, unfortunately, it's not really about the music or the artist. It's about you and your perception of yourself and how you think things ought to be. And we all know that this very rarely intersects with what actually is. Just because you think this is how it should be only makes it just that: what you think; it doesn't make it true. KryKey Personal Web Radio, WCUT Radio and Developmental Sound Labs are doing just that, being fair to independent artists, having compassion for independent artists, putting their best foot forward and working together for the common good of independent artists.

(please note: this has been written from information by JM)

No comments:

Post a Comment