Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Sorry State of the Music Industry

Right Minded Fellow loves music. His latest discovery is the piano music of Irish composer, John Field, very nice stuff. He's also enjoyed developing a much deeper appreciation of Doris Day and Jo Stafford. When's the last time pop music had female singers with nice pipes like those gals? What's happened to music when Amy "Deadhorse" or whatever her name is has become a pop sensation for glorifying being a drug addict?

Remember, this is from a fellow who grew up in the 60's and 70's who lives and breathes classic rock but got a lot of grief in junior high and high school for listening to all that "nigger" music. His love was his buddies' loss as Motown, the Stax record gang, Aretha Franklin and many other incredible African-American performers were part of his music diet from the get-go soon leading him to discover real honest-to-God blues like Willie Dixon and B.B. King. The Byrds recorded Sweetheart of the Rodeo which introduced Gram Parsons whose death left a void filled in by his duet partner, Emmylou Harris and before long the Outlaw music movement was underway, so Right Minded Fellow became quite the shit kicker too.

In the interest of branching out when the big guy got his first big stereo, he also discovered jazz. Early on, that interest in jazz was largely performers like Billy Cobham and Return to Forever before discovering the real masterpieces by John Coltrane and Miles Davis. When catching a buzz between classes in 1974 at Towson University, a buddy from New York had an album he borrowed from his brother, Natty Dread, by Bob Marley and the Wailers. What a discovery that was, soon coupled with Jimmy Cliff's collection of fine reggae artists performing for The Harder They Come soundtrack. Before long, your anonymous third person writer was turning everybody in sight onto the fine rhythms of Jamaica's Rasta men.

All the while since its release in the Spring of 1972, Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones has always been the top album wearing out five lps and three CD's of Mick, Keith, Charlie and the other lads, sidemen, and guests crank out the absolute best rock album ever. Sure Sticky Fingers, Let It Bleed, and Beggar's Banquet are indespensible Stones' classics too, but from the opening guitar chords of "Rocks Off" to the loud and chaotic fade to "Soul Survivor" Exile rocks the dark under side of American culture cruising on high octane guitar driven rock through out while taking some tasty side journeys into blues, country, R&B and gospel. Mr. Right would be hard pressed to name a second favorite album. There are plenty of fine candidates; however, Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde is one of those albums that after thousands of playings and years of enjoyment still has more little delights left to discover. The Grateful Dead's high point in the studio came from two albums released in rapid succession, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. Eric Clapton's done so many fine albums, but Journeyman is the real masterpiece for this listener. Everything works so beautifuly from start to finish.

Your humble writer was a Beatles fan. Come on, how could anyone not find something to love in the Fab Four's finest work? Nothing knocked out this fourteen year old music fan like his first hearing of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Interestingly though "Pepper" has not aged well. This is not to diminish its appeal, but in the pursuit of tossing aside all convention, over time, the album seems to be greater for its social significance and the creative revolution in pop culture it championed. The real Beatles' masterpiece is Revolver, the album released the previous summer. Song by song, Revolver holds up much better. Look at all the incredible cover versions that Revolver has yielded, Earth, Wind and Fire performing "Got to Get You In To My Life," Emmylou Harris doing lovely versions of "For No One" and "Here, There, Everywhere," Stevie Ray Vaughan recorded "Taxman." Rosanne Cash did a haunting version of "I'm Only Sleeping," the original deleted from the US LP release. Phil Collins tackled the album's wildest adventure, "Tomorrow Never Knows." Rubber Soul is a fine album supported with diverse, creative, and sensitive songwriting coupled with much more mature musicianship, yet American listeners missed out on the album where the Beatles truly began their mature phase, Help! The US release was sliced and diced to create a movie soundtrack with incidental instrumental music from the film. In England and most of the rest of the world, Help! was a complete album with seven additional songs including "Yesterday" the most famous song ever recorded, a few songs that turned up on Beatles VI, Yesterday and Today, and two songs that showed up on the refabricated US release of Rubber Soul.

At one point in the late spring of 1965, "I Can't Help Myself" by the Four Tops, the Byrds', "Mr. Tambourine Man," and the Beach Boys', "Help Me Rhonda," topped the charts with "I'll Be Doggone," Marvin Gaye, "Stop in the Name of Love," the Supremes, "For Your Love," the Yardbirds, "Ticket to Ride," the Beatles, and "It's Not Unusual" by Tom Jones all on the same local hits survey.

Okay, enough of the musical biography, from purchasing his first 45 rpm single, "Time Is On My Side," in November, 1964 to the present day, the Right Minded Fellow has purchased thousands of albums first on vinyl then CD from all the styles and genres sited and lots more including even a tremendous collection of Frank Sinatra albums from the 1950's. This guy loves his music.

Sadly, though since around 1990, the music industry has been in a tailspin not to be dimissed as a short term or isolated creative rut. Rock's last big stand was the grunge movement of the late 80's and 90's from Starbucks country. The great R&B scene which gave listeners soul music in the 60's and funk in the 70's and early 80's has all but evaporated being replaced my bland, spiritless, glossy commercial pop as personified by Mariah Carey, and there's no underestimating the scourge the Hip Hop scene and its "gangsta rap" has all but obliterated quality Black Pop music. For country music, it seems like it's all marketing. Find some young male or female with the perfect ass for a tight pair of blue jeans, deck out this potential star with the appropriate accessories: the big belt buckle, cowboy boots, topped off with a giant cowboy hat then hope this person can sing with a false southern twang, singing talent is totally optional as the fine assembly of studio musicians on Music Row will lay down the catchy, radio friendly grooves. It's all quite predictable. There's no future Merle Haggard or Loretta Lynn in the mix, but if someone is shamelessly exploitive enough, there could be the next Shania Twain.

On the grand scale, creative pop music had died a terrible death replaced by yet another assembly line product as predictable and boring as the next. The record industry and corporate radio stations have done to music what McDonalds has done for food. They've created a bland, consistent product that's not very good for you that's more a matter of marketing than product quality.

Why is this? For starters, radio stations were once mostly locally owned. Now most major markets are dominated by CBS radio or ClearChannel ownership. Second and far worse, three huge international corporations with a fourth significantly smaller player, EMI, has locked up at least 85% of the music industry. Through mergers and acquisitions a robust scene of great creatively focused record labels, many representing the music scene of a particular city like Berry Gordy's Motown, have all been gobbled up by industry giants: Universal Music Group, Sony-BMG, and the Warner Music Group. Some of the old labels exist as brand names only in the hands of these corporate giants. Warner still sells new releases supporting the Atlantic label but gone is any evidence of the creative vision of Ahmet Ertegan. Label names now roughly represent the industry's attempt to match brand names with certain styles of music. There is no Motown, Stax, Atlantic, or Elektra type of artist. Creative entrepreneurs with a real passion for music have been pushed aside by corporate executives who lean on marketing and promotions staffers rather than real music people to identify what product to peddle.

The industry has also been clueless in working with new technologies and listening habits. Starting with the introduction of the compact disc in the early 1980's, the record industry in its greed and haste pushed product on the market repackaging the vast majority of their LP and cassette inventory into the new digital format paying no regard to the album artwork and much worse paying any attention to the recording quality of the music being transfered to digital master. Rather than spending a little pre-production time finding the best masters, carefully working with the source material to create the best sounding master from which to replicate thousands of CD's to be shipped to retailers, they'd grab any old master, not even adjust the EQ settings specifically reshaping the sound for the sake of LP manufacturing, the old RIAA "curve," or other accomodations for Dolby B sound for cassette. As such, most of the first generation of CD's were shoddy, horrible sounding garbage only giving the listener the convenience of the CD rather than the bulky and delicate LP. A decade later, the industry realized its follies, taking the time to produce excellent sounding CD's, at times getting the original engineer and producer to work with the original studio tapes to do the original work justice as "remasters" or "special collectors' editions."

By the late 90's, the possibilities of highly portable music and the personal computer entered the scene. The record industry was not ready. Kids could rip CD's creating their own listening experiences often sharing songs with friends as file sharing services like Napster and Kaaza popped up allowing volumes of essentially free, albeit, illegal music. Rather than embrace the trend, RIAA, the industry's gestapo initiated high visibility lawsuits identifying and suing music pirates who "stole" their music. One such suit went after the single parent mother of a young teen daughter living in a low income trailor park for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, all measures to clamp down on pirating simply made the computer nerds more creative. Leave it to technology maverick, Apple computer, to figure out how to make the whole thing commercially viable, but it was Apple, not the industry who developed iTunes soon to be followed by Rhapsody, Amazon, and other download services. Apple practically took the record industry kicking and screaming into the new technology setting up the licensing arrangements to sell music on line.

Finally, the industry came up with two new formats to create the next generation of potentially much higher quality better sounding CD's with audio DVD's and Super Audio Compact Discs (SACD's). Both offered the industry sophisticated encryption rendering them almost copy proof. And whatever happened with these formats? Well, they're somewhat popular in Europe and Japan among the audiophile market, but most labels abandoned their efforts to enter the new technology even though the SACD's often sound breaktaking.

With the big "three and a half" corporate giants having a strangle hold on the music industry pumping their product through corporate radio, the future for creative music looks murky on the grand scale, but perhaps the digital download market could provide the seeds of a whole new creative revolution where artists can record, market, and distribute their products on line completely eliminating the record companies. Surely, they'll try to find some way to sue these "indie" performers into compliance and joining their evil empire, but it could be the genie is out of the bottle now. It's just a matter of time before a decentralized, artist controlled media emerges.

Given the history of the music industry from when the wave of the massive mergers began in the late 60's, whatever the industry decides to do, it will never fall on the side of promoting great properly recorded music.

The seeds of their destruction could possibly be shown by artists who are selling their product exclusively through mega retailers like WalMart as the Eagles did with their last album or Best Buys as the Rolling Stones did with the videos of their last two tours.

In the meantime, if you're ready to rock, grab Exile on Main Street, and for the next seventy five minutes enjoy the raunchiest real rock your ears can handle!!

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